Mom Goes Camping

Making Sense of Backpacking Stoves: The 5 Types and their Pros/Cons

backpacking stove guide

I never had to think about backpacking stoves when I was young.  My dad carried most of the gear and we kids just had to carry our trail mix and sleeping bags.  I remember my dad making pancakes on a big camping stove in front of our lean-to in the Adirondack Mountains.  How the hell he carried that big stove up the mountain, I have no idea!

Little Diane in front of our lean-to in

Little Diane in front of our lean-to in

 

I can't find a pic of the backpacking stove we used to use, but I remember it looking like this big, heavy one.

I can’t find a pic of the backpacking stove we used to use, but I remember it looking like this big, heavy one.

 

Now, my dad has upgraded to a better, ultra-lightweight backpacking stove.  And I’m taking my own daughter backpacking, which means I’ve had to figure out the stove options by myself.  Waah!! Adulthood is so tough. 😉

For all of you who were as confused as I was at the start, here’s a guide to the types of backpacking stoves.

 

Do You Even Need a Stove when Backpacking?

If you are the ultralight or ultra-minimalist type of backpacker, then maybe you want to scrap the stove completely and live off of GORP instead.

I personally am not fond of the idea of eating nothing but nuts and dried fruit for days on end.  Plus, I’d be pooping so much that I’d have to bring along a lot of extra toilet paper and a shovel. 😉

You could opt to cook over a campfire instead of bringing a stove.  This works well, but it is annoying to build a fire each time you want to make a cup of coffee (and some of us drink a LOT of coffee!).

campfire cooking on top of rock

Here’s one way to cook over a campfire

So, unless you are fine with not having coffee and eating only GORP, then you’ll need a backpacking stove.

 

The 5 Types of Backpacking Stoves

Backpacking technology has come a long way since my dad lugged a heavy camping stove up the trail with us kids.  Now you have four options that range from super-basic to super-high-tech.

 

1. Solid Fuel Stoves

esbit solid fuel stove

These stoves use little tablets which light on fire.  While they are ridiculously easy to use (just light them), there is no way to control the flame. Your only options are to add more fuel tabs to get a more intense flame or to bring the pot closer.

Why They Are Great:

  • Super easy to use
  • Cheap
  • Really lightweight
  • Don’t even need a stove – just dig a little pit, put the fuel tab inside, and put your pot on top

Why They Suck:

  • Despite what the manufacturers promise, it will probably take FOREVER to boil water
  • They will leave a gross residue on your pot (Tip: Coat your pots with soap and you will be able to easily wipe off the residue)
  • No way to control the flame

Want to buy one? 

The Esbit Stove is one of the most popular and costs just around $10.  You can buy it here.

Solid fuel tablet lit. No use trying to control that flame!

Solid fuel tablet lit. No use trying to control that flame!

Did I mention that solid fuel tablets leave a gross film on your pots?

Did I mention that solid fuel tablets leave a gross film on your pots?

 

2. Gas Cartridge Stoves

msr gas stove

This was the first type of backpacking stove that I used.  I went to my local market here in Serbia and was able to buy a cheap portable stove for under $10.  The gas cartridges are under $1!

The great thing about these super-cheap gas stoves (at least here in the Balkans) is that you can find replacement cartridges everywhere.  Even in remote villages at the top of mountains I’ve been able to find replacement cartridges.

The gas stoves are fairly bulky though, and I did have an issue with leaking once.  So, I finally bought a “real” backpacking cartridge stove (The Primus). This one was ridiculously expensive compared to the cheap one, and uses special screw-top canisters which I won’t be able to find while traveling.  I’m still deciding whether it was worth it.  For short trips though, the pro backpacking canister stove is definitely nice for saving me space in my pack.

Why They Are Great:

  • Super cheap options available!
  • Can usually find replacement cartridges while traveling – though this depends on the type of cartridge you are using
  • Easy to use
  • Boils water very quickly

Why They Suck:

  • The “pro” backpacking gas stoves are expensive
  • If you use the screw-top canisters, good luck finding replacement cartridges on the road!
  • The cartridges are fairly bulky
  • Can freeze in cold weather (I’m not hardcore enough to backpack in winter though, so this doesn’t bother me!)
  • Can’t use with a wind screen. They can EXPLODE if they overheat!

Want to buy one?

The MSR MicroRocket stove is a good choice. Buy it here.

My old, super cheap gas cartridge stove

My old, super cheap gas cartridge stove

 

3. Liquid Fuel Stoves/Alcohol Stove

A purchased alcohol stove setup

Don’t want to pay lots of money for backpacking gear?  I hear you!  So consider making your own fuel that runs off of alcohol. You can easily make one out of two old soda cans.

Note if you go with the DIY option, you’ll probably want to make a base to prop your cooking pot on top of.  This can be done by putting a few rocks around your stove and propping the pot on those.

Why They Are Great:

  • You can make your own for free
  • You can find alcohol pretty much anywhere
  • Alcohol is cheap
  • When you ask for “alcohol” fuel in a foreign country, they will probably misunderstand you and offer you homemade brandy instead 😉

Why They Suck:

  • Do you really want to carry around a LIQUID in your pack? Spills, anyone???
  • Good luck controlling the flame. It is possible, but takes some getting used to
  • Not the fastest way to boil water

Want to buy one?

The Trianga stove is a good choice and you can buy it here.

Cooking on a DIY alcohol stove made from soda cans

Cooking on a DIY alcohol stove made from soda cans

 

4. Pressurized Liquid Multi-Fuel Stoves

msr whisperlite

I personally have never used one of these stoves, mostly because they don’t sell them here in Serbia.  Yeah, sometimes it sucks living in a country that no one has even heard of. 😉   That’s SERBIA, and not SIBERIA by the way!

But I do know that pressurized stoves have a fairly high learning curve.

Once, while backpacking and camping on a mountaintop in Kosovo, a fellow hiker joined us for a night while passing through.  He had a pressurized stove and had apparently not tested it before setting off on his trip.  ALWAYS TEST YOUR GEAR BEFORE YOU LEAVE!!!  He couldn’t figure out how to use the stove, so we cooked dinner on my cheap gas cartridge stove.  Hopefully he figured it out.  Otherwise he was going to be munching on uncooked spaghetti for the rest of his hike.

 

Different Fuel Options

Most liquid fuel stoves work on white gas. It is clean-burning and won’t clog your stove or make bad smells. If you spill it, the white gas will evaporate quickly.   The downside is that it is stupidly expensive.  Oh, and if you spill the fuel, be careful because it is very flammable!

Some liquid stoves will also work on kerosene, diesel, or standard unleaded gasoline.  The problem is that you can end up with some odors and the gas additives may cause clogging.

I do wish I could get my hands on one of these multi-fuel backpacking stoves.  It would solve a lot of my problems – namely refueling along the journey.  However, I admit to being a bit squeamish after hearing that pressurized backpacking stoves can EXPLODE. No me gusta!

Wouldn’t it be fun to go to the pump and get 30 cents worth of fuel. 😉

If you are an international traveler like me, then this is probably your best bet.

Why They Are Great:

  • Multiple fuel options
  • Can control the heat
  • Boils water super quickly
  • Unleaded gasoline is really cheap
  • Will be able to find fuel pretty much anywhere there is civilization

Why They Suck:

  • If you are using white fuel, good luck finding it outside of backpacking stores!
  • Have a high learning curve.
  • Require maintenance, such as changing O-rings
  • Expect clogs if you use unleaded gasoline
  • Don’t spill gasoline. Oops! Too Late!
  • Your hands will probably stink from them.
  • Not exactly the most compact option if you are just going for a short trip
  • Have to be careful with wind screens because OVERHEATING CAN = EXPLOSIONS!!!

Want to buy one?

My dad, the expert thru-hiker, uses the MSR Whisperlite with gasoline and is happy with it.

The MSR Whisperlite being used with a wind screen

The MSR Whisperlite being used with a wind screen

 

5. Fancy New High-Tech “Alternative Fuel” Stoves

The Biolite camping stove can charge your phone.

The fifth type of backpacking stoves are known as “alternative fuel stoves.”  I guess some of them are pretty cool, but I generally prefer a more minimalist approach to backpacking.

Take the Biolite stove.  It not only runs on wood, but converts the energy so you can power your cell phone.  But who want to be called while in nature?  The last thing I need is a connection with civilization!!! 😉

Why They Are Great:

  • You’ll get “cool” points for having the fanciest new gear
  • You can charge your gadgets

Why They Suck:

  • Why the hell do you want to charge your gadgets? Shouldn’t you be enjoying nature?
  • You’re paying a lot for the cool factor
  • Some are big and bulky

Want to buy one?

Check out the BioLite Wood Burning Stove (that also charges your phone) or, for something more traditional, check out the Solo Stove Light which runs on wood.

What backpacking stove have you used?  What do you love and hate about it? Join us on Facebook for more backpacking talk and tips!

 

Image credits:
Esbit” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by  sqlrat
IMG_1145” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by  themountainrabbit
MSR Whisperlite” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by  gunnyrat
cs5” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by  vikapproved
My penny alcohol stove working in the wi” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by  *bri*
BioLite” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by  Rrrrred
Maximusnukeage CampCooking.jpg CC BY-SA 3.0, Found on Wiki Commons
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About the author /


Diane Vukovic is an avid traveler, outdoor enthusiast, beetle lover, sometimes sculptress, couchsurfer, and loves finding ways to explain complex topics to her 6-year old daughter. Follow MomGoesCamping on Facebook and Twitter @MomGoesCamping to stay in touch!

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