How To Choose a Backpacking Stove | Average Hiker
There Are So Many Stove Options!
How to choose a backpacking stove is a commonly asked question, along with choosing a backpack, day-pack or tent. There are so many options, and each one has it's own advantages and disadvantages.
I have used a few different stove types over the years and still like to try new stoves that come to market. If I had to choose a perfect stove, it would be one that….
- is light weight
- burns natural fuel sources (wood)
- does not cause wild fires
- I can use in my vestibule
- burns wet fuel sources – in below freezing temperatures also
- does not turn me and all my gear black
In other words – a magic stove.
Until the above stove is manufactured, I'll take you through the multitude of choices you do have. I'll define the stove category, list the pros and cons, and provide a few options. Finally, I'll describe the stoves I use.
How To Choose a Backpacking Stove – My Own Requirements
My magic stove is described above, but since that is not an option I'll go over some of the requirements that I have settled for in my stoves. The list below is not necessarily in priority order.
- Weight – This is high up on my list since I do a lot of long distance hiking. My goal is always to reduce weight as I get older and want to reduce wear and tear on my body. Hopefully this means I hike longer.
- Ease of Use – I would like a stove that is easy to set-up, start.
- Convenient – It should be relatively easy to find fuel.
- Three Seasons – Most of my hiking is three season hiking, although in some areas this is still pretty cold. The stove needs to work in relatively cold temperatures.
- Durable – I don't want to mess with a stove a lot, so durability in a rugged environment is important.
How To Choose a Backpacking Stove – Categories
There are different types of backpacking stoves. The more common ones I'll review are…
- Canister Stoves
- Wood Stoves
- Liquid Fuel Stoves
- Alcohol Stoves
- Solid Fuel Stoves
There are three types of canister backpacking stoves. A direct canister stove includes a stove that mounts or screws directly on a canister. The canister is the base of the stove. A remote canister stove has a hose that connects the canister to the stove. There is also an integrated canister stove which has a specially designed pot to create one efficient unit.
You will probably see the majority of backpackers carrying a direct canister stove due to weight and convenience. I often use a Pocket Rocket, and a picture from my Pocket Rocket Review is in the picture above.
- Fuel is convenient and relatively easy to find compared to other fuels
- Stove is very easy to use
- Light weight and small compact size of stove
- Fairly inexpensive compared to some other stoves
- The base is usually small so not stable
- Will explode if exposed to too much heat
- Difficult to determine remaining fuel
Wood Burning Stoves
A wood burning backpacking stove is great as long as there are no fire bans. When I was young and learning, I took my Bushbuddy on the PCT in Southern California. As the stove began flaming, the infamous Southern California winds kicked in and I was convinced I was going to be the source of the next devastating wildfire! The poor Bushbuddy had a very short PCT hike!
There are basically two types of wood burning backpacking stoves – can based stoves and folding stoves. The Bushbuddy is a double sided, can based stove, which makes it very efficient at burning wood. It basically reduces it to ash.
If my magic stove is ever manufactured, I really hope it will be a folding stove. They are are often lighter and pack up smaller. They also have a natural windscreen, and often have a slot to feed fuel on their sides. If you want to read a nice review on choosing a wood burning stove, checkout Section Hiker's article.
- Fuel is available – sticks, pine cones, leaves, etc. It's all around you!
- Light weight stoves that pack small
- No use of “fossil fuels“
- Fuel is hard to find when wet, but you can always use Esbit tablets
- I get soot all over me, but some of my friends call me the Linus of backpacking, so it may not be the stoves fault?
- Cannot use where there are fire bans
Liquid Fuel Stoves
When I hiked the AT in 1998, everyone used liquid fuel backpacking stoves. I remember watching a guy attempt to light his stove in a shelter in the Smokey Mountains. The stove blew up and he just about burned down one wall of the structure. He did not yet have a trail name, but he did after that night!
A liquid fuel stove is great for cold weather camping (burns down to 40 below), and if you are camping internationally. The stove consists of a small tank with fuel which you pump to build pressure and push fuel through a hose to the stove. Once at the burner the fuel mixes with air to create the flame.
Liquid fuel stoves primarily burn white gas, but others can burn dirtier types of fuel like gasoline, diesel, kerosene, etc. This is good if you are traveling in other countries, but can result in you having to break down and clean your stove more often. If using other fuel types you might have to use a primer in order for it to burn the gas.
- Uses multiple types of fuel if traveling in another country
- Burns well in very cold sub-zero temperatures
- More eco-friendly since bottles are reusable
- Lower fuel costs
- Easy to determine remaining fuel
- Stove and fuel is heavy and bulky
- Fuel can be messy and smelly
- Stoves can be finicky to light
- Need to pump for pressure before lighting
Alcohol backpacking stoves come in many shapes and sizes. This is the category that has the most “Do it Yourself” (DIY) stoves since it is simple to make a stove from a soda or beer can. If you want an inexpensive, light stove, then this is your category.
There are several different types of alcohol stoves to choose from…
- Open – Fill a open can with fuel and you are good to go
- Side – Holes are in the side of the can, so the flames come out the sides This allows you set your pot on top and use it as a stand
- Vertical – Uses two nested cans that make the flame that comes out the top of the stove more efficient
- Pressure – These are the most complex. They use vapor pressure to create a very strong flame for boiling water and can be temperamental. They also have to be primed.
Alcohol stoves are very popular in the long distance hiking community due to their size, weight and ease of finding fuel. The stoves can burn HEET, Rubbing alcohol, Denatured Alcohol, Everclear, etc. Fuel can be found in drug stores, hardware stores, maintenance shops, etc.
- Light weight DIY stoves can be an aluminum can – less than an ounce
- Easy to find fuel in small towns along trails
- DIY stoves are very inexpensive or free!
- Stoves are messy, depending on the fuel they can be sooty, and easy to spill
- The base is narrow and unbalanced – need a stand, hard to set pot on stove
- They can be unsafe – easy to spill fuel and fire
Solid Fuel Stoves
Solid fuel backpacking stoves are commonly referred to as Esbit Stoves. Esbit tablets are the fuel cubes that you burn to boil water or cook your food. It takes about 8 minutes to boil two cups of water with a cube.
You will need a stand or pot holder for the Esbit cube. I have seen minimalist hikers dig a hole in the ground, place the cube in the hole, and place the pot on top.
Solid fuel is a great back-up fuel source for wood stoves, if you are in a wet environment. It also makes a good fire starter for camp fires. I often take a cube or two with me for emergencies when hiking.
- Good back-up fuel source
- Light weight for backpacking
- No ability to regulate the heat source
- Not always easy to find on long hikes
- Smell bad when burning – like bad fish
How To Choose a Backpacking Stove – Summary
There are many different stoves you can use, and most of them have been created to fill a niche or address a need. I've tried one in every category, and I'm sure I will continue to experiment. I also cold soak when I'm moving fast and don't want to mess with a stove.
My Backpacking Stove of Choice
The stove I most commonly use is a canister stove, the Pocket Rocket 2 Stove you see in the picture above. The little stove is easy to use, works fairly well in cold temperatures (although I sometimes have to cuddle the can to warm it up), and the stove itself is only 2.6 ounces. I can usually find it in towns along the trails.
A couple of notes on the stove. I don't use a windscreen since I stop and eat before camping when I find a sheltered spot. Rocks have served to block wind on occasion, but I'm careful since the can blow at temperatures over 122 degrees. You don't want it to get too hot. I've never had an issue.
Other Backpacking Stove Considerations
When I do winter hike, or hike in very cold temperatures, I have always used a Whisperlite Liquid Fuel Stove. Since I don't use them often I've never had a reason to change. This has always been a dependable stove for me.
My Bushbuddy was the wood stove I was most excited about. It's a well made little stove, but about gives me a heart attack if there is any kind of significant breeze. I use it more on the east coast than I do out west, and generally when I'm doing shorter hikes where there is more camping involved.
I have also used the Solo Stove Lite, and the thing I like the most about this stove is how fast it heats up my water. The Solo is larger than my Bushbuddy, but it does not need a separate windscreen and I can add wood. These are both advantages for this fun stove – those and a nice camp fire.
Many long distance backpackers swear by alcohol stoves, mainly due to the weight and ease of finding fuel. I've never really enjoyed using alcohol stoves. I find them messy and have had the fuel leak in my pack. The leaking is of course part of my “Linus Factor.” When I do use alcohol, I use a Brasslite stove. The stove is lite (1 oz.), heats up well, and is more stable than some other alcohol stoves I have used.
I mentioned earlier that I have often carried a couple of emergency fuel cubes, but I have also used them as my primary cooking method on occasion. If you are going to use them, you will need a stand and a windscreen.
I have put them between rocks in the past, but I don't dig a hole or use rocks anymore. LNT Principles are important to me, and although they leave a small scorch mark I still prefer not to bake chemicals into the ground and leave black rings if I can avoid it.
How To Choose a Backpacking Stove – Final Thoughts
Choosing a backpacking stove can be a little overwhelming, but today's choices are generally all good stoves. Also consider whether you want to hike or camp, and enjoy or endure. If I'm camping and enjoying then I like wood stoves as long as there are no fire bans. I do love my ever dependable Pocket Rocket though.