Why, oh why, does selecting backpacking gear always require sifting through so many choices? There are so many companies with so many offerings, and just as many opinions. Of course, backpacking stoves are no different. Analysis paralysis can easily set in when you start learning about your options.
For this post, I’m going to briefly outline the types of cooking technology out there and then make a firm recommendation.
The first thing to decide is if you need a stove at all! Some backpackers choose to go sans stove and eat only cold, processed or pre-cooked foods. But these people tend to be pretty hardcore and they aren’t in the majority. Still, it’s worth mentioning because perhaps it’s a viable solution for some people on short, overnight trips. But assuming a hot meal at the end of a long day is important to you, you’ll need a cooking method.
Another pretty radical (but simple) method is making your own stove out of a cat food can or tuna can. These homemade stoves include a cat food can (duh) and liquid fuel (denatured alcohol or HEET). Although cat can stoves aren’t entirely uncommon, I’m going to go out on a limb and assume this method isn’t for most beginning backpackers. Incidentally, you can also buy a stove designed to burn denatured alcohol if you don’t want to make your own.
Solid fuel tablet stoves are another option worth mentioning, but they’re also not very mainstream. With this method, you purchase tablets of solid fuel (commonly made by Esbit) that fit into a little stove frame. These stoves are very lightweight, but it takes a long time to boil water and there’s no simmer option. Plus, the tablets STINK for some reason and leave a residue on your pot.
Small wood burning stoves are becoming increasingly popular, but these tend to be unrealistic (like, in the desert) or illegal (like, at higher elevations) in many backpacking locations. And good luck finding a dry fuel source in damp or wet weather! Plus, they are generally bulky and heavy.
That leaves canister stoves and liquid fuel stoves. These are the most common options, but I’m going to eliminate liquid fuel stoves from the equation.
Liquid fuel stoves include a low-profile burner with a separate canister of liquid fuel (usually white gas, but also kerosene, diesel, jet fuel or even auto gasoline). The fuel is cheap and the stoves work better at high elevations and in freezing conditions, but they have MANY moving parts that need to be maintained and cleaned, the fuel spills easily, the stove has to be primed and pumped before you can use it each time and they tend to be heavy. So, unless you do a lot of winter backpacking and intense elevations, this is probably not to best option or you.
Canister stoves are the most common type of backpacking stove, and for good reason! They are easy to use, lightweight, can’t spill and are easily maintained. Canister stoves screw onto a gas canister. The canister acts as the base with the stove on top for your pot. You light them with a match, lighter or piezo-igniter (sometimes built right into the stove) and you’re ready to cook.
So now you know: you’ll want to buy a canister stove! Great – but which type?
There are three main subsets of canister stoves on the market today: the plain old canister stove; the integrated canister stove; and remote canister stoves. Let’s knock remote canister stoves off the list. They are more expensive, may require more maintenance, and are bulkier and heavier. The one big benefit is that some of them work better than regular canister stoves at very high elevations.
Integrated canister stoves are super popular right now. The best-known brand is JetBoil. These stoves screw onto a canister and have an integrated pot that screws onto the burner, with a built in wind screen. So, instead of your pot resting on the stove’s arms, the pot really becomes one with the burner. This means that water boils FAST. In fact, that’s what these stoves are designed for: super fast boiling times. And since most backpackers simply boil water to pour into a bag of pre-packaged backpacking food, this is a popular option.
But there are downsides to integrated stoves. They are heavier and tip over easily. They are designed to boil water, which means many models do not have the option to simmer. Switching to a larger pot to accommodate a group of backpackers means buying an expensive attachment designed for their system. I know a few people who report that their JetBoil stoves seem to lose power after a couple of years of use. And they are quite expensive.
Lastly, we have the plain old canister stove. These are my all-around favorites. They’ve been around for a very long time and are well known for being reliable year after year after year. These stove systems include a collapsible, lightweight stove that simply threads directly onto the canister of fuel. Once lit, you adjust the flame, which allows for rapid boiling or slow simmering. These stoves tend to be inexpensive compared to JetBoil/integrated stoves ($20-$40 vs. $80-$200).
The stove itself has arms that open up and hold your pot. Some come with a built-in piezo-igniter, but that’s really unnecessary, in my opinion, and they break frequently. Why pay extra for that when a regular, small lighter or match will always work (waterproof matches should be carried, in case it’s pouring rain).
I own a MSR PocketRocket stove, and I love it. The advertised boil time for a liter of water is 3.5 minutes (as a comparison, the Jetboil models hover around 3 minutes or a tad less), but I find it’s often quicker than that, even up in the Sierra Nevadas. It simmers like a champ and your can turn the flame down to practically off if you needed to.
Some people become concerned that the arms of the stove won’t accommodate a larger pot and, since the pot isn’t integrated with the stove, it might tip over easily. Not so. I just used a large, 4-person pot on a trip with no issues. Of course, we placed it on level ground and we were careful not to bump into it, but it was fine. The JetBoil models usually have stabilizers that get added to the bottom of the fuel canister because they are so top-heavy!
I don’t understand the hype around integrated canister stove systems like the JetBoil. Whether my water boils in 3 minutes or 3.5 minutes doesn’t really matter to me. What does matter is reliability, durability, versatility, price and weight. I want the ability to simmer and to use other pots I already own without buying expensive attachments.
For me, the clear winner is the regular canister stove, and that’s what I recommend for all new backpackers.
“Laughter is brightest where food is best.“ – Irish Proverb
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