While cooking fires might seem like a good idea to a Tenderfoot, they generally wreck havoc on the environment and are often prohibited in popular camping areas. And they are unreliable as a heat source in bad weather. The solution is a backpacker’s stove.
For most backpacking units, the main decision will be between two stove categories: Liquid Fuel or Canister. Each has its particular advantages and disadvantages. Leaders should also consider cooking pot size and stove stability if the group is large and communal eating is the norm.
Denatured Alcohol Stoves
These stoves have few or no moving parts to worry about, weigh very little and burn silently. Serious hikers make their own (or several of them) out of old soda or tuna cans (or similar) and throw them away after the season if they get crushed or destroyed. They are for experienced backpackers, not for people on their first trip into the woods and alcohol stoves are not suited for large groups. However, they are great for hikers that enjoy a quiet campsite and a slow pace to their backpacking adventures. NOTE: AS OF 2012, BSA HAS DECIDED THAT ALCOHOL STOVES ARE TOO DANGEROUS FOR SCOUTS TO USE.
Alcohol stoves do not burn as hot as other stoves so they take longer to boil water. Fuel can be purchased at most hardware stores. Carry it in a small plastic container and pour some into the stove/can when you are ready to light it. You have to let all the fuel burn out and there is no heat adjustment, so it takes some trial and error to get it right. But if you are not in a hurry, or if you have the required experience, then it’s not really much different than other liquid-fuel stoves.
The Penny Ultralight Alcohol backpacking stove pictured above is a pretty good starting point. Hundreds of hikers have followed the instructions on their website to build their own stoves.
Note that, since they burn silently, it’s easy to forget they are burning and it’s hard to see if it’s lit during the day because the flame is very light. So be careful.
Liquid Fuel Stoves
Liquid fuel stoves are the most economical long-term choice. They most commonly run on white gas using a refillable red fuel bottle that is manually pressurized with a fuel pump. Most Scout units have these stoves and have used them for years because the fuel is inexpensive, the stoves are almost indestructible (if you maintain them), fuel canisters come in different sizes, and there is no canister to discard. And a liquid fuel stove usually works well, no matter how cold it gets.
The only real downside is that liquid fuel stoves can be difficult to light, especially at night. These stoves need to be pumped and primed, a process that preheats the fuel line enabling the stove to convert the liquid fuel into a vapor for combustion. This priming inevitably leads to frequent small explosions and burning surfaces during the learning process, which can be intimidating to beginners, especially Scouts who accidently set their arms on fire.
Bring along a field maintenance kit if you’re going out for more than a couple days. There is a detailed drawing of a typical liquid-fuel stove on Backpacker Magazine’s website. It’s a great resource when you are trying to clean your stove at home or learn how to do it later on the trail.
Remember, white gas is more flammable than alcohol or a butane/propane mixture and therefore more dangerous. Keep stoves and fuel bottles out of the tent. There are lots of stories about leaking red canisters that allow gas to escape, pool in some low spot in the campsite (or tent) and then erupt into flames with a spark from the campfire or even static electricity from a sleeping bag. Once I saw a Scout walk past a campfire with an open red fuel canister in his hand. He managed to splash a little on the ground and his leg, which burst into flames (the leg and the ground). Luckily, he remembered to stop, drop and roll so there were little damage except to his clothes. Still it was a reminder to be careful. (Personally, I have seen more explosions with Primus stoves than MSR stoves, but Primus does allow you to turn the fuel bottle over to shut off the fuel and clear the line.)
Canister stoves are the easiest for young Scouts to use. They run on pre-filled and pressurized gas canisters (commonly butane/propane). Scouts simply attach the stove to the threaded fuel canister, turn the gas knob and light it with a match. Some models even have an igniter button. The canister self-seals when the stove is detached, eliminating the possibility of fuel spills.
From a Scouting perspective, canister stoves are safe, easy to use, lightweight, and provide almost instant heat with no priming. Some say they also deposit less soot on the cooking pots – so cleanup is easier. On the other hand, the fuel bottles are expensive and you can’t easily tell how much fuel is left. (Don’t use a windscreen around a canister stove because it traps too much heat and the stove might explode!)
One really big drawback for backpacking groups is that canisters de-pressurize in cold weather (below 32°F – which is typical for snow camping or late Fall trips to the high country) leading to weak or no flame. This means you can’t cook dinner when it gets really cold. Manufacturers suggest that you sleep with them in your sleeping bag to keep the canisters warm; but, that violates several Scout rules for safe backpacking. (Normal pressure resumes when the canister temperature rises above freezing temperatures.) My biggest complaint is that the canisters cannot be recycled and you end up carrying a lot of empty canisters around looking for a place to toss them safely.
Backcountry.com conducts a Goat Test (their logo) on canister stoves and have decided the MSR Pocket Rocket is the best of the lot for its weight. There is information about the testing and the results on their website.
Integrated Canister Stoves
One reasonable option for a canister-stove shopper is an integrated stove system, where the stove is paired with a cooking pot designed to work specifically with that stove (and only that stove). Compared to a traditional canister stove, the integrated stove boils water faster, saves fuel, and provides its own wind protection (which raises the heat and lowers the fuel consumption). And you get your own pot (big cup) into the bargain. But it costs more and it is almost useless when you have a big group of backpackers.
Trailspace.com tests integrated stoves and they think the Jetboil is pretty good. It comes in two sizes: PCS and GCS. Results of the testing and performance under different conditions are on the Trailspace.com site, but notice the article was published in 2007.
Multi-fuel Stoves (Liquid-fuel)
These are liquid-fuel stoves that can accommodate various fuels including some or all of the following: white gas, unleaded auto gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel and diesel. (Would you ever really take gasoline or jet fuel on an outing?) They are expensive and a small pain to switch over if you change fuels often, but they are commonly used by hikers going to countries where white gas is not readily available.
Comparing Stove Specifications
According to REI, once you’ve narrowed your search to a particular stove category, you can compare models using the following attributes. There are lots of web sites that test stoves against these specs.
• Burn time: This refers to how long a stove burns using a given amount of fuel.
• Average boil time: This is the time required to bring 1 liter of 70°F water to a boil (based on an average of 3 timed boils).
• Liters of water boiled (per 100g of fuel): This is the “miles per gallon” rating for fuel efficiency at full stove power. Note: When stoves are operated at less than full power, they are even more efficient.