A Primer on Backpacking Stoves

With so many backpacking stoves available on the market, how do you choose the best one? They come in all shapes and sizes, burn a variety of fuels and range in price from a few bucks to well over a hundred dollars. The simplest answer is to find one that suites the majority of your needs for the style of backpacking you do most.

For a short weekend trip, you do not need anything fancy. A backpacking stove which burns denatured alcohol like the Vargo Triad Titanium, or a fuel tablet stove like the Esbit Pocket Stove, will allow you to boil water for cooking and purification. These stoves are ultra lightweight (1-4 oz.), easy to use and very inexpensive. They usually burn up to 15-20 minutes before needing refueling, and in moderate weather may take as much time to boil one liter of water. In more extreme environments these stoves make for a good emergency backup, but are not recommended for daily use in these conditions. Remember that you are backpacking to spend quality time in the great outdoors. There is no need to get a jet engine stove that can boil water in 30 seconds whenever you're backpacking. High output stoves are not very economical and usually burn a lot of fuel. Unless you are planning on cooking meals that require long cooking times at high, steady temperatures, you probably will not need anything more sophisticated than these ultralights on a short trip.

For longer trips, say a week or more, you are usually better off with a standard fuel burning stove which will typically burn white gas or propane. These come in many shapes and sizes and should be selected based on the conditions you expect to be backpacking and cooking in. Stoves like the MSR WhisperLite are a favorite among backpackers due to their light weight and ease of use. For the more adventurous backpackers, the MSR DragonFly and the Optimus Nova both have the option to burn a multitude of fuels, including gasoline, kerosene and even jet fuel. Multi-fuel stoves are great for international travel where white gas may not be as readily available as it is in the U.S.

MSR, a leading manufacturer of backpacking stoves, offers a side-by-side comparison of each of their stoves, including features and benefits of each model, on their website. This is a great way to see which stove the manufacturer recommends based on the conditions in which you intend to use your stove. Many outdoor retailers offer similar comparisons on their websites. Another great resource to assist you in making your final decision is to review comments, customer reviews and blogs on backpacking stoves, which can be found on websites varying from personal blog sites to large retail stores like Amazon.com.

Other considerations when choosing a backpacking cooking stove include the climate conditions where you go backpacking and ability to perform field maintenance on your stove. Backpacking in extreme cold and heat is rough on all of your gear and can quickly wreak havoc on your stove. Parts freeze and crack and rubber dries out. If you spend a lot of time in less than temperate climates, you need to have a stove built to withstand the elements, like the Optimus Nova or MSR XGK EX. Always bring a stove maintenance kit if your stove's manufacturer sells them as there are few things worse than being two days into a weeklong backpacking trip through the snow and realizing you have a leak or cracked seal on your stove which you could have fixed if you had brought a maintenance kit with you.

For the enterprising backpacker, you may even choose to build your own backpacking stove. This is often the cheapest route and is fun to try, but you should consider a backup cooking source when on a longer backpacking trip, just in case. If the cost of fuel is getting you down, you may even opt for a wood burning stove like the TrailStove by Stratus. This mini furnace runs on good old fashioned sticks and twigs. While it may be a bit bulky for the average backpacker, it certainly helps keep the heating bills down.

Here is a recap of things to consider when looking for a backpacking stove:

What kind of budgetary constraints are you under?
How long are you going to be on your trip?
How much weight are you willing to carry around with you?
Will you be cooking meals, or just boiling water?
What climate and environment will you be backpacking in?
What types of fuel are available where you're backpacking?

All pages on this topic:
Stoves | Backpacking Stove Reviews and Comparison - The Top 5 Best | Backpacking Stove Safety and Maintenance | Homemade Backpacking Stoves: The What, Why and How | Stoves vs. Campfires: And The Winner Is...
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