A portable stove enables you to cook nearly anywhere. Most stoves burn clean which makes cleanup easy. While a stove will add weight to your pack, the combination of a stove and foods which you cook are often lighter than ready to eat foods. Cooked food typically provide more energy than raw food. Boiling water is an effective purification method. In cold locales, stoves are used to melt snow for drinking water. You only need to get the water to 160F to purify it. People do a full boil to be sure they are safe but this wastes fuel. When there are a few bubbles forming the water is around 175F. You can get all the water to 212F (100C) producing significant steam, but you should know that getting water to phase change to steam takes an extra amount of energy. Some minor updates to this post April 2023.
I use a gram cracker stove for esbits with a UL Caldera Cone system for all my solo trips except when fire regulation forbid it. When traveling internationally or thru hikes where I am resupplying on the fly I go back to alcohol due to the ease of acquiring fuel. I have used a Snowpeak GigaPower GS-100 canister stove (my review) since 2001 on solo trips when regulations require a “off” valve, and on group trips because it is easy to use, more powerful than alcohol, and simmers well. It’s also a good stove to using in an enclosed space because it produces much less carbon monoxide than most stoves. I am no longer doing hardcore winter trips so no longer have a stove that is ideal for large scale snow melting.
Factors to Consider
Stoves should be evaluated based on a number of factors: step in weight (stove + fuel container), weight for the length of your trip factoring in fuel efficiency, accessibility of fuel, operating environment restrictions, need for simmering (flame control), initial cost, and cost of operating.
Stoveweight vs Time Over 14 Days provides a useful graph which can help you appreciate how the step-in weight and fuel efficiency can effect carry weight. If you don’t want to use a Flash plug-in, Jim’s gas-vs-alcohol provides a similar analysis in written form. If you want to model out all stove / fuel weight options check out the light-weight stove calculator.
TSA regulations prohibited stove fuel in both carry-on and check thru which means if you are flying, you need to make sure you can easily acquire your fuel between touching down in the plane and getting to the trail head. Either plan to purchase fuel on the way to your trailhead, have someone pick up fuel for you, or mail your fuel via ground transportation to a dropbox. If you are traveling outside your home country, check out international fuel names and how to find meth spirits.
If you are planning to use a stove inside a contained area (say a tent) learn about the dangers of carbon monoxide. There is a six part series Stoves, Tents, Carbon Monoxide which provides a deep dive into this topic (summary: use a Colman Xtreme stove, or a canister stove with side burners like the Snowpeak GS-100)… or have a chimney.
Canister stoves seem to be the most popular stove among backpackers. For most of this section we will discuss stoves that use the standard Lindal-valve. Smaller canister stoves are reasonable light (stove + empty canister 7oz), easy to start, easy to use, don’t tend to flair up, simmer well, burns clean, and are more fuel efficient that other options. They operate well in three season conditions (in colder conditions, say <40F keep the canister in sleeping bag and they are fine).
The downside of upright canister stoves are they don’t function well in below freezing conditions (can work down to -25F with a Moulder Strip), most have sub-standard performance in wind (flatcatgear ocelet helps), it is hard to get additional canisters in some locations, and the fuel is expensive. It’s a pain not to know how much fuel is in the canister. You can shake it (imprecise) or check its weight (not practical on the trail). Finally, there is the question what to do with partial canisters, though something like the GasSaver lets you transfer fuel between canisters.
Altitude does not significantly impact the performance of the canister stoves except pizo-electric starters tend to have problem above 9k ft… use a match or a flint based sparker. I don’t think canister availability should be an issue unless you are on trip which doesn’t have reliable re-supply ever couple of weeks.
There are numerous stoves sold today. The best and more comprehensive review I have seen is BPL’s Upright Canister Stove Testing and Review from 2019. Based on their reviews, my personal experience, and the experience of good friends I would recommend three stoves, and one with a cautionary note.
- Soto Windmaster has won number polls of experienced backpackers and gear reviewers. It has a regulator which should theoretically allow it to effectively function when the pressure in the canister is low, a big plus when it’s cold or your canister is almost empty. In practice, I have not seen it provide significant performance improvements, but I haven’t done extensive testing to measure this. Much better in wind than the vast majority of canister stoves.
- MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe continued to be on everyone’s recommended list. Easy to find in stores, good performance in the wind. For whatever reason this stove never “grabbed me”, but it’s a very good option.
- Kovea Spider weights 2-3x more than the typical “top of the canister” stove, but those extra 3-4oz give a lot in return. It is significantly more effective in sub-freezing conditions. The fuel line pre-heats the fuel insuring that all your fuel will be usable. It’s also more stable with larger pots and can be used with a full windshield without danger of overheating the canister.
- BSR 3000T stove is significantly cheaper that the stoves listed above, the pot arms reportedly sometimes warp but I have not personally witnessed this.
There are a number of integrated Pot/Stove styles. JetBoil was the first company with these sorts of stove and has a larger variety of options. I think this is an interesting system, but the step-in weight is sufficiently high that even with it’s higher fuel efficiently, none of the JetBoil stoves systems is able to beat my canister stove + pot + fuel for total carry weight when being used is real (read windy) conditions, and I don’t like being locked into one pot. A nice alternative is the Ocelot windscreen from FlatCat Gear which can combine a heat exchange mug with several of the stoves listed above producing a system which is more fuel efficient that most of the commercial integrated systems AND is easily removed allowing you to use a variety of pots with your stove.
The small Snow Peak fuel canister a listed as weighting 7oz: 4oz of fuel, 3oz of container. My experience is that they weight 210g full, and 86 grams empty. I find the fuel runs full out for approx 40 minutes in many stoves, which is enough to boil 7 1L pots of water or 12 24oz pots in most conditions. The MSR and Primos fuel canisters will run twice as long. Primos makes “jumbo” a 450g canister which would be useful to someone cooking a lot. You can’t fly with canisters, but you can mail iso butane canisters via surface mail as described in yellowjacket’s canister faq.
The second canister type is made by Gaz and are rather heavy. They are more popular in Europe than in North America. I am not particularly fond of these stoves. I believe the lindal-value isobutane canister stoves are superior in every way.
Alcohol stoves have been the darling of the ultra-light community. Especially popular in the 1990s when their primary competition was heavy white gas stoves. The base weight of an alcohol stove system can be lighter than an ounce, the stoves can be very inexpensive, and have no moving parts to fail.
Fuel is easy acquired many locations (marine supply stores, hardware stores, paint stores, outdoor stores, automotive stores (HEET) or in some locations that permit >180 proof Everclear. Hand sanitizer, typically 70% alcohol, can be an adequate fuel. I like the denatured alcohol made by Sunnyside best since it’s mostly ethanol which is nicer than methanol but hard to find in California. Alcohol is easy to transport making resupply easy and it burns quietly.
Alcohol as a fuel has less BTUs / ounce than other fuels commonly used backpacking so if you have a lot of cooking to do (long trips without resupply, melting snow, cooking for lots of people) you would be better served with a different fuel source. Some people express concern with using alcohol at elevation. There might be issues at extreme elevation, but I know of no one who has had trouble using alcohol below 14k ft. Cold can eventually impact performance but I have found that keeping the fuel in my jacket pocket and using the stove on an insulated mat takes care of any potential issue. It is possible to knock over a running alcohol stove which could be a fire hazard, so some parks ban the use of open stoves during times of high risk of fire.
Most alcohol stoves do not simmer well, they can just boil water. If you want to do complex cooking you should select a stove which is designed to vary heat output via a simmer ring or other mechanism. Basic “simmering” can be accomplished through the use of a cozy such as those sold by AntiGravityGear or homemade with reflectix.
A commonly asked question is how much fuel does it take to boil X amount of water. There is not fixed answer for this. The amount of fuel required depends on how much water you boil at one time, the temp of the water, the fuel efficiency of the stove, how much wind, and the size/shape of the pot. My experience is that the amount of fuel required to boil 16oz (.5L) is somewhere between 0.3 and 1.5 oz of alcohol depending on stove and conditions. Most stoves will be between 0.5-1oz. There was a thread on BPL in 2022 about what is the most fuel efficient alcohol stove?
Many people make alcohol stoves. Some good designs / sites for people who want to make stoves: stove types by zen, jason klass stoves, supercat, ion stove. I used an Ion stove for several years. It is the most fuel efficient stove I have used… but you had to be patient. I found the it regularly took >14 minutes to get 16oz water to a boiling point.
If you want to buy a pre-made stove I would recommend one for the Caldera Cone Stove made by Trail Designs. I found them easy to use, stable, fairly efficient, good in wind, and a fairly fast boil time. The kojin stove is an ultralight version of the classic Trangia which can seal in unburned alcohol. If the “cones” aren’t for you, I would recommend looking at whiteboxstoves which makes a very durable stove which is beloved by many. Brasslite makes stoves which are more durable than most home made stoves and one of their models simmers though it’s not as efficient as some of the other stoves when it comes to boiling water. Vargo make the cool looking Triad which unfortunately performs badly, I would skip it. Back in 2005 BPL wrote up a commercial alcohol stove survey and performance report which is now dated.
Many people carry alcohol in light weight plastic containers. When people need a lot of fuel, Mountain Dew bottles seems to be popular because they are a different color than containers people drink out of. On shorter trips I use a small 2 oz bottle that Camp Suds came in. On longer trips I used an 8oz Playtpus Lil’ Nipper (no longer made… similar 8oz flask) with a cap from BPL
Solid fuel stoves provide structure to burn combustible solids. The most common form of this are esbits stoves which are designed to hold solid fuel tablets off the ground while they burn. Esbits can be very simple to use, have no risk of spilling, and are fuel / weight efficient. A well design esbits system such as the Caldera Cone Stove made by Trail Designs can bring 16oz of water to boil in 7-8 minutes using less than 15grams of fuel or do two smaller boils.
My original experience with esbits was quite negative. I couldn’t get 16 oz of water to boil with the typical esbits stoves. part of the problem was my pot was too far away from the esbits. I learned that distance between the esbits and port bottom (uses flash, graph here) will impact performance significantly. I also didn’t like that esbits smell a bit like rotten eggs and left a sticky residue / black gunk on pots. I had completed written them off until GVP challenged me to try Caldera Keg which and is now sold by Trail Design. I was amazed at how well this system worked, though I like a more durable pot. I purchased a Trail Designs UL Caldera. I am able to efficiently bring my 16oz of water to a boil, I could live with the smell, and the residue was manageable. The only downside in my mind now is that they can be hard to light. In the wind it has taken me a minute to start with Bic lighter.
WetFire is an alternative to esbits and is reportedly lights more easily, burns hotter and cleaner, leaving no residue on the pot. It has been suggested that Weber Lighter Cubes are similar to WetFire, but are larger and significantly cheaper. Some people have found that they could warm water up enough for their needs using 5 gram esbit tablets.
Typically I bring around 12 ounces of water to boil for my dinner… blow out the esbits. Eat. Relight the esbits, and have enough fuel to 8oz cup of tea. I then use the tea bag is as sponge… I knock off any food particles on the inside of the mug before drinking. The tanic acid in the tea seems to help cut through an oily remnants of dinner so a quick rinse takes care of the inside, and then use the tea bag to remove the esbits residue from the outside of the pot (before it hardens) when I am finished drinking the tea. One downside that is still true… they are more expensive that many of the other options and during fire season are banned in some areas.
Pressurized Liquid Fuel stoves
Pressurized Liquid Fuel stoves have been the main stay of camping stoves. Most will burn white gas, many will burn other fuels as well. The step in weight for these stoves is at least 15oz, and in some cases close to two pounds between a heavy stove and fuel bottle. On the other hand, if you have to do a lot of cooking, especially in cold weather, nothing can compare the the large fuel supplies that can be brought to bear. There are a number of multi-fuel pressurized liquid fuel stoves which can burn almost any flammable liquid simplifies re-supply, especially when you are outside Northern America. I haven’t used this type of stove much in since the late 1990s. There was a thread on BPL about most reliable gasoline stoves which would be useful to read.
The MSR Whisperlite has been very populate for years… but I am not fond of it. It’s not light, it sounds like a jet engine not a whisper, doesn’t simmer, and can be temperamental. I think the MSR SimmerLite is a much nicer stove (lighter, less temperamental, and simmers well). The faithful MSR XGK has always impressed me with it’s durability, can burn just about any fuel, and it’s ability to function in extreme conditions though it is even louder than the Whisperlite. For multi-fuel stove, a number of people seem to like the more modern MSR Dragon Fly, though there are a number of new entries in this field, including a number which will also run on isobutane canisters.
I still have a soft spot for the Svea 123 Stove. I know several people who are using the same Svea 123 stove they purchase in the 1960s. The Svea 123 still compares favorably from a fully loaded weight perspective to more “modern” white gas stoves. The Svea 123R doesn’t put out as much heat at some of the modern liquid fuel stoves… so it’s not great for cooking for big groups, but it it quite efficent which makes it nice for solo or use by a couple. There are a number of other companies that make liquid fuel stoves, but since I don’t use them, I haven’t been following them very closely.
Wood Burning Stoves
Wood burning fire made from material found on the ground. If you keep the fire small enough for just cooking then in many locations, this is an environmentally friendly way to cook. The down side is that there are places that small fires aren’t recommended either because of the danger of forest fires or that the fuel supply / conditions are not appropriate. There are several designs for small, portable stoves which burn wood. The fire box in wood burning stoves typically is either steel or titanium because aluminum will melt. My favorite is the Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri. Other commercial backpacking wood stoves include the bushbubby stove, trailstove, makairametal wildwood stove, Vargo Hexagon Wood Stove and the heavier littlbug stove. There are several DIY stoves include Nimblewill Nomad Stove, Garlington Stove, ikea cutlery container stove. An interesting variation is the Sierra Zip Stove stove which uses a small electric fan to drive the fire. If you just want to boil water, Boilerwerks makes a light weight versions of the Kelly Kettle originally popularized by fisherman. Finally, there are stoves designed for warming shelters in addition to cooking on top of. They have chimneys to vent the carbon monoxide (or other icky stuff) outside the tent. Examples of this include Ti-goats vortex titanium stove, Kifaru. stoves, and chimpac’s Centerpole chimney/stove.
There are a number of companies such as Soltac which make portable, solar powered ovens which can be used to cook food in the back country. These devices typically weight between 10oz and 2lbs and use just sun light for “fuel”. Of course, they are only useful if you have good sun light available and typically take a lot longer than more traditional systems. I don’t recommend these unless you are planning to set up a base camp which will be used for multiple days in a sunny location.
There are a small number of flameless systems such as what are built into MREs. These systems often use calcium chloride or magnesium sulfate which produce an exothermic reaction When mixed with water. There is no flame, so it can be easily and safely used inside a tent. The downside is typically cost for the heating packets and weight
Capillary pump stoves
Vapore invented a technology that was licensed by MSR. It was hoped that stoves using this technology could use lighter weight fuel canisters and be extremely efficient. Alas, MSR hasn’t produce a viable consumer stove using this technology.
Hikin Jim’s blog Adventures in Stoving is filled with reviews and notes about stove efficency and a discussion which followed about lids and pasteurizing rather than boiling. BPL StoveBench is a robust protocol for testing stoves. Gear Skeptics video about stove efficiency is interesting (basically low and slow wins).
Random Hint: Boil only the amount of water you need. Have the water in the pot before you light the stove, so you can immediately start heating the water. Use a wind screen. Consider using a pot cozy rather than simmering.