There are probably a few brave and hearty souls out there who just eat cold food or cook over a campfire when they’re backpacking. I’m sure they exist. For the rest of us mortals, a stove or some way to heat water at least, is a necessity. But there are just so many options! Do you get a canister stove? A white gas stove? Use a windscreen? Is lighter better? What to do, what to do?
First, learn about the types available. There are several, but the two basic types of backpacking stoves are canister stoves and white gas stoves. Canister stoves are widely available and come in a variety of styles. Some makers of these stoves include Jet Boil, MSR, and Snow Peak.
One type of canister stove sits right on top of the fuel canister. These stoves are great because:
- They are sturdy and provide decent support for your cook pot.
- The temperature control on canister stoves is great, so if you need to simmer food, these work really well.
- Canisters can now be recycled if you punch holes in them once they’re empty.
- This type of stove is extremely compact (it will fit in your pocket).
- It is super light.
The disadvantages are:
- Canister stoves don’t work as well at high altitudes or when the fuel canister is cold. (If you’re using one and it’s cold, keep it in the bottom of your sleeping bag on chilly nights.)
- You cannot use a full windscreen with this particular type of canister stove since this stove sits on top of the fuel–you create a fire and explosion hazard. So you lose some efficiency in general and a lot of efficiency if it’s windy.
The other type of canister stove sits on the ground and uses a fuel line to connect to the canister. The advantages of this stove are:
- Unlike the other canister stove, this one can use a windscreen to provide maximum heat and efficiency.
- The temperature control is great.
The disadvantages are:
- Again, canister stoves don’t work well at high altitudes or in cold conditions. It will take close to 10 minutes to boil water if the temperature dropped to freezing the night before.
- This stove weighs a bit more than the canister-top stove mentioned above.
Your other main option, aside from the canister stove, is a white gas stove. This is what we use when we go backpacking. White gas stoves:
- Use white gas, which is available almost anywhere (and canisters are not).
- Work great at altitudes and in cold weather.
- You can choose different-sized fuel bottles depending on the length of your trip.
- White gas is cheaper than canisters.
The disadvantages of this stove are:
- It weighs a little more and isn’t as compact as the canister stoves.
- It takes a little more time to set up in the morning (maybe a minute of priming, etc.)
- It doesn’t have great temperature control. If you’re boiling water (like we are) then it’s perfect. For simmering, etc., not so much.
I find that for ease of use on short trips or when it’s going to be warm out (like if we’re camping with lows in the 50s), the canister stove is great. It’s very simple to use and it takes up less space.
However, when we’re in the alpine backcountry temperatures are variable, especially if we’re above 10,000ft, the longer that canister stove has to work to heat water, the less fuel you have later on. It can create a stressful situation if you’re concerned that your fuel source is going to run out!
On our most recent backpacking trip we used a white gas stove. It was great for boiling water because it works fast no matter what the temperatures. It’s easy to hook up and just takes a few minutes of prep. BUT it takes up more room. With the Jet Boil canister-top stove, we can fit the stove AND fuel inside our GSI cookset. The white gas stove requires a separate fuel bottle that I have to carry, plus the stove doesn’t fit in the cookset. It definitely made us reconsider the smaller stove/fuel combos that we’ve used in the past.
If wood is the only way you want to go, however, Biolite does have a wood-burning camp stove that also charges your gadgets!
Whichever stove you choose, make sure you practice with it a few times before heading out. If you already know how to use it you won’t waste valuable coffee-drinking time in the morning trying to figure it out.