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Guide: how to choose your stove?

Having a great pot is not enough to eat outdoors, you also need a great backpacking stove tailored to your needs…
A good stove is just as important as a good pot or a good meal. When deciding how to choose the best camping stove for you, many criteria have to be taken into account such as frequency of use, power, number of people to cook for, and also its weight, size, heating mode, etc. This guide is meant to help you better understand the outdoor cooking world !

Contents

Fuel type

  • Gas or Canister stoves
  • Liquid fuel stoves
  • Alcohol stoves
  • Wood-burning stoves
  • Self-heating cooking systems
  • Summary table

What kind of stove for what type of activity ?

Health and environment

If you need more help…

Conclusion

Fuel type

Prior to choosing a backpacking stove, you need to know first the different fuel sources available on the market. This consideration may influence your final choice
There are 4 main groups of stoves using:

  • canister fuel : gas stored in liquid form in a canister. Canisters often use butane, propane, or isobutane (click here for more info).
  • liquid fuel (or multi-fuel) : the liquid fuel is stored in a bottle. Can be white gas or unleaded automobile gas (95/98), lantern fuel, kerosene or even diesel. Multi-fuel camp stoves typically run on liquid fuel or gas.
  • alcohol fuel : fuel is methylated spirits found in liquid or solid form (Esbit cubes as a fuel source are the best example)
  • wood fuel : stoves using this type of fuel are designed to burn wood prior to generating energy

Let’s get more specific…

Gas or Canister stoves

Canister gas stoves are by far the most common type of backpacking stoves. These are extremely reliable, low-maintenance and easy-to-use stoves. There are a large variety of camp stoves out there, ranging in price from a few dozen up to several hundred euros.
Caution : Although canister fuel is easily found in France, that could be a challenge when traveling abroad, depending on your country of destination, you should check before you go. Traveling with gas canisters can become very difficult. For example, you definitely can’t fly with them. Read more ...

Fuel is stored in a container and needs to be pressurized using the included pump, to feed the remote burner. This type of stove is largely used by international travelers, polar explorers, and mountaineers. This type of stove is recommended for groups, its great stability and wide stance can accommodate larger pots. In a group, it’s always easier to divide the weight, one can carry the burner while others carry the fuel bottles. If you frequently use it, you can also take only the fuel that you really need and thus optimize the weight of your pack. The efficiency of this cooking system is excellent, even in cold weather.

This is not necessarily the right equipment for beginners. You need to develop the required know-how to take advantage of its full power, for example you need to know how to control preheating. In fact, to create an optimum flame, the fuel must vaporize. The liquid fuel is heated and with the heat of the flame it vaporizes or transformed into gas. Some models include a preheating system, just pour half a teaspoon of gasoline and light it to increase the T° of the hose that carry the gasoline to the diffuser. Priming is fastidious but necessary.
Contrary to gas stoves, multifuel stoves require a stringent and regular maintenance. Don’t worry, if you encounter problems, renowned brands offer spare parts. It is not unusual to have a blocked up stove due to the use of medium quality fuel or gasoil. White gas, highly recommended, doesn’t have any dirt/dust. That’s one of the cleanest fuels there is. If you choose this cooking system, you need to have fuel bottles to carry your fuel. Make sure you select a compatible bottle when it’s not included in the original kit.


Multifuel stoves can not only use liquid fuel (White gas, SP95, SP98, Gasoil …) but also gas canisters that meet the safety standard EN417. That’s a major advantage, because you can choose between 2 fuels featuring each their own strengths. If you go mountaineering and/or operate in very cold temperatures, you’ll be able to use liquid fuel otherwise you’ll be able to use gas.

They use valve canisters and screw-on canisters. The latter ones are very practical, because they are easy to use and meet the international safety standard (EN417 for valve models). MSR, Optimus, Primus, Coleman and Jetboil stoves use this type of canister. Canisters with simple valve (without the thread) used in France by CampingGaz are not compatible unless you use an adapter. I would advise against using these so-called « puncture »-style canisters, because they are difficult to find outside the French territory and once punctured they cannot be stored.

It should be noted that pressurized gas is not good for cold weather. It's almost impossible to have a standard gas stove work when temperature drops below zero, unless you use some specific canisters like MSR or Jetboil isobutane/propane canisters for example.

There is another option to solve the weather issue : new generation burners like Jetboil Joule perform very well at very low temperatures (-12°C !). With this type of cooking system, that is, an inverted canister and a FluxRing heat exchanger, you can go mountaineering or on a trek trip. In an emergency, if you don't have such a system performing well at low t°, you can warm the canister up by putting it inside your clothing (before connecting it to the burner) and use the stove at low power to heat up some water.

Last point : remote canister gaz stoves are more fragile because they come with more parts (flexible hose and o-rings to name a few), but they offer much more stability and can run at negative temperatures by tipping the canister upside down (valve downwards) that's the case of the Optimus Vega.

Fuel availability : 3/5

  • gas canisters available in specialized stores
  • transporting gas canisters may result challenging (ex : aboard an airplane)

Weight and bulk : 4/5

  • very light weight and ultra-compact models available (73 g with MSR)
  • gas canisters are available in several sizes

Power : 5/5

  • gas stoves are the most powerful and efficient stoves of all camp stoves
  • they run at full power once they ignite

Power setting : 5/5

  • a simple, very precise setting

Air temperature and overall weather conditions : 3/5

  • basic models won’t operate at low T°
  • wind can affect performance
  • work well in wet weather

Safety : 5/5

  • screw-on canisters are very safe
  • no fuel handling

Stability : 4/5

  • since mini stoves don’t have stable bases, you should opt for a gas canister tripod
  • remote stoves are very stable

Fuel usage or Burn time : 3/5

  • where there is cooking power there is gas consumption, however you can save extra fuel by using pots with heat diffusers and heat reflectors.

Cost : 4/5

  • you can find “entry-level” models that are highly efficient and durable for just 30€

My favorite low-end model : MSR PocketRocket 2 (which has replaced the PocketRocket model after completing 10 years of good and faithful service).
My favorite high-end model : JetBoil MiniMo 1L cup carbon with its 6,000 BTU/h and its 442g.

Liquid fuel stoves

Gasoline stoves (liquid fuel or multi fuel) have one definite advantage : liquid fuel is available everywhere, no matter where you are. They will run on white gas, exclusively designed for stoves, or simply on automobile gas (SP98, SP95, Diesel). They will also run on kerosene or lantern fuel. Read more ...

Fuel is stored in a container and needs to be pressurized using the included pump, to feed the remote burner. This type of stove is largely used by international travelers, polar explorers, and mountaineers. This type of stove is recommended for groups, its great stability and wide stance can accommodate larger pots. In a group, it's always easier to divide the weight, one can carry the burner while others carry the fuel bottles. If you frequently use it, you can also take only the fuel that you really need and thus optimize the weight of your pack. The efficiency of this cooking system is excellent, even in cold weather.

This is not necessarily the right equipment for beginners. You need to develop the required know-how to take advantage of its full power, for example you need to know how to control preheating. In fact, to create an optimum flame, the fuel must vaporize. The liquid fuel is heated and with the heat of the flame it vaporizes or transformed into gas. Some models include a preheating system, just pour half a teaspoon of gasoline and light it to increase the T° of the hose that carry the gasoline to the diffuser. Priming is fastidious but necessary.

Contrary to gas stoves, multifuel stoves require a stringent and regular maintenance. Don't worry, if you encounter problems, renowned brands offer spare parts. It is not unusual to have a blocked up stove due to the use of medium quality fuel or gasoil. White gas, highly recommended, doesn't have any dirt/dust. That's one of the cleanest fuels there is. If you choose this cooking system, you need to have fuel bottles to carry your fuel. Make sure you select a compatible bottle when it's not included in the original kit.

Multifuel stoves can not only use liquid fuel (White gas, SP95, SP98, Gasoil …) but also gas canisters that meet the safety standard EN417. That's a major advantage, because you can choose between 2 fuels featuring each their own strengths. If you go mountaineering and/or operate in very cold temperatures, you'll be able to use liquid fuel otherwise you'll be able to use gas.

Fuel availability : 4/5

  • multi fuel is largely available
  • large selection of fuel

Weight and bulk : 3/5

  • few models are compact
  • you need to carry an external fuel bottle + short hose and maintenance kit

Power : 4/5

  • liquid fuel stoves are very powerful and highly efficient
  • however, preheating is required

Power setting : 4/5

  • You will need to juggle opening the fuel adjustment valve and pumping up pressure from the fuel bottle. With the same valve aperture, the lower the pressure the smaller the flame.

Air temperature and overall weather conditions : 5/5

  • Liquid fuel stoves are best used for polar and high altitude mountaineering expeditions.
  • in windy conditions, you’ll need to install a heat reflector for top-notch stove performance.

Safety : 3/5

  • handling (connecting and disconnecting stove from fuel bottle) is always risky
  • particular attention should be paid to preheating
  • need regular maintenance

Stability : 5/5

  • Stoves with remote canisters offer great stability.
  • They are well suited to hold up large pots

Fuel usage : 4/5

  • Fuel bottles come in different sizes
  • Over time and with experience, it becomes easy to optimize the amount of fuel needed depending on your personal use

Cost : 3/5

  • Due to the complexity of design and construction, liquid fuel stoves are not « cheap »
  • Well maintained, they are reliable and durable

My favorite : MSR WhisperLite Universal Combo. This multi fuel model is also compatible with EN417 approved gas cartridges and features an AirControl system : It creates the optimal fuel/air mix according to the type of fuel used. It comes in a bag and includes the fuel bottle, maintenance kit and tools, windscreen, and inverted canister stove stand.

Alcohol stoves

Alcohol stoves are the easiest stoves to operate and make. They are also less expensive and stronger. But they are much less efficient than their gas or liquid fuel counterparts. Alcohol can be used under all temperature conditions, even in sub-zero temperatures. When temperature is too low, you’ll have to preheat the fuel line to enable the stove to convert alcohol (liquid state) to vapor, as you do with liquid fuel stoves anyway. To do so, employ a “primer” (available with some models) to raise the temperature of the stove and heat the alcohol (without necessarily ignition). You can also simply place a tealight below the burner. The stove can perform without priming but it will take more time (and more alcohol) to reach the vapor state. Good to know, gel and solid alcohol heat up your meal without vaporizing and therefore do not require priming. Read more ...

Alcohol stoves work very simply : pour some liquid alcohol in a small dish, light and let vaporize, the flame diffuser will heat your pot. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to adjust the heat output. Whether you use alcohol in liquid, gel or solid form (such as Esbit cubes for MRE), it produces a strong smell during combustion.

If you choose this cooking system, you need to use a windshield, because the flame is rather “soft” and can die out with the breeze. In addition, a windshield helps to concentrate heat around the pot so heating time is improved.

If you choose liquid alcohol, you also need to purchase an alcohol bottle to carry the fuel (see here). Gel and solid fuel are also very practical because they are less volatile. They can be used even without a stove, and placed in a small dish or directly on the ground. Some handymen build their stoves themselves, these are known as Hobo Stoves. That requires some skills, and some are not very efficient.

Fuel availability : 4/5

  • alcohol fuel available everywhere, even in supermarkets
  • alcohol fuel source available in 3 possible forms : in liquid, solid, or gel form

Weight and bulk : 5/5

  • There are no smaller stoves than alcohol stoves
  • some titanium models just weigh thirty grams or so

Power : 2/5

  • these stoves are not very powerful
  • priming time is required

Power setting : 1/5

  • It’s almost impossible to adjust the flame

Air temperature and overall weather conditions : 5/5

  • as long as you preheat your stove, it can be used in all temperatures
  • alcohol cannot freeze
  • you’ll have to install a heat reflector in windy conditions for optimal use of your stove

Safety : 2/5

  • alcohol handling can be dangerous
  • filling the stove with alcohol while operating is not recommended

Stability : 2/5

  • very small in size and very unstable
  • alcohol stoves can tip over with tragic consequences

Fuel usage : 4/5

  • Alcohol bottles come in different sizes
  • Over time and with experience, it becomes easy to optimize the amount of alcohol needed depending on your personal use

Cost : 5/5

  • extremely cheap stoves, with prices starting at 15€ (refills included)

My favorite : the all-in-one Esbit stove includes stove, windshield and pot. It also includes a stand designed for use with solid fuel tablets. It is extremely compact and lightweight.

Wood burning stoves

Wood burning stoves are extremely simple to use, wood is generally free and readily available. However, at medium and high elevations there are environments where there is no wood to burn or it becomes difficult to light a fire. This cooking system has a traditional flair to it that can be appealing to some people like bushcraft enthusiasts. They are highly valued when it’s impossible to light a fire directly on the ground. Read more ...

Wood-burning stoves provide a pleasant warmth and allow for a distinct cooking style that is uncommon to other stoves, like cooking on a camp fire. However, it is difficult to manage the flame output and it can be tedious to start a fire without a firestarter (like these firestarters). You should also make sure you have small dry firewood in store to improve the combustion process. Some stoves are very efficient and use double gas combustion to create a constant flame and heat. Others are combined with kettles like the Kelly Kettle and can boil water very efficiently. In this kit, a suitable fire base is included so you can cook directly on the flame. Some wood stoves are very basic and work like portable barbecues while others are more elaborate and produce energy that can be used to charge small electronic devices. That's the case of Biolite. Except for the latter ones, wood stoves require little maintenance if not any. You just need to store it in a dry place to avoid rusting.

With this type of stove, you need to choose pots that are wood stove compatible. Indeed, wood burning can cause deposits of soot to form on your pot and the continued use of wood fuel on anodized aluminum cookware can damage the pot coating (unless you keep the soot on it). So choosing 18/10 stainless steel cookware may be a better option, for example the MSR Alpine range. As explained in this guide : how to choose your pot, food-grade stainless steel pots are more abrasion resistant (scratch, cleaning).
Use care, there is a real risk with this cooking system if used during the dry season or in wooded areas.

Fuel availability : 5/5

  • Wood is available and free
  • but not so in high altitudes or desert regions

Weight and bulk : 4/5

  • some models are rather light weight
  • wood burning stoves are often designed for group use

Power : 2/5

  • medium power
  • may vary depending on the type of wood burned

Power setting : 1/5

  • It’s almost impossible to adjust the flame

Air temperature and overall weather conditions : 4/5

  • as long as you find and use dry wood, the stove works in all temperature conditions

Safety : 3/5

  • you’ll need water to extinguish your open fire
  • pay careful attention to your surrounding environment

Stability : 4/5

  • Quite stable stoves

Fuel usage : 5/5

  • Performs continuously as long as there is wood

Cost : 4/5

  • Cost may vary according to model performance and options
  • basic models are durable and require no maintenance at all.

My favorite : the Kelly Kettle Scout is ideal for a brew (hot coffee) between pals or to hydrate a few freeze-dried meals. This stove works in rainy conditions and is fearless in windy conditions !

Bonus : Self-heating cooking systems

Self-heating cooking systems : there is an ultimate alternative, chemical heaters that use “self-heating” meal modules. This is a system using a chemical reaction to produce energy and heat and cook your food. Flame free and smoke free, this unnoticed system requires no fuel, simply add a small amount of water to activate the reaction. Potable water is not necessary, the system works even with sea water or urine. The chemical reaction between the liquid and the mix oxide/calcium dihydroxide (or equivalent) generates a rather strong heating source able to heat up meals. Read more ...

This is a single-use cooking system. To heat up your meal, just tear open the heater bag using the marked line, then insert the unopened meal pouch inside the heater bag and add 60ml of water (amount may vary depending on heater models). Finally, seal the heater bag closed and wait a dozen of minutes. It’s a convenient system for use with sterilized meals, you can also heat your own homemade meal that has been kept in a zipped bag for example.

There is a range of sterilized meals especially made for self-heating systems. This system is also available in 12 and 24h MRE rations. That’s a very convenient system to use when you cannot make a cooking fire or in areas where camp fires are not allowed. It’s a must-have in your car for emergency preparedness, during snowstorms for example. It’s also ideal for milsim (military simulation) airsoft games or for hunting parties. It’s also perfect if you stay in a non-equipped hotel room or, why not using it at the office, on construction sites, on the university campus… It should be noted that this cooking system doesn’t involve any other investment other than a fork, no stove or pot needed.

Fuel availability : 1/5

  • Very low availability, limited to specialized stores

Weight and bulk : 5/5

  • Extremely lightweight and compact
  • Slightly bigger than A4 paper

Power : 3/5

  • medium power
  • it takes about 7 to 12 minutes to heat sterilized meals

Power setting : 0/5

  • power adjustment impossible

Air temperature and overall weather conditions : 5/5

  • as long as you have water in liquid form, this cooking system works in all temperature conditions

Safety : 5/5

  • System generates high heat but cannot set fire to surroundings

Stability : 5/5

  • Can be laid flat, on any surface

Fuel usage : -

  • Single-use cooking system

Cost : 3/5

  • Affordable but still consumable system

Summary table

Every cooking system has its up and downsides. The following table allows you to compare stoves


The results are fairly consistent although gas and liquid fuel stoves are higher rated. However, use and activity are two key factors that must be taken into account in the final choice.

What kind of stove for what type of activity ?

As always, identifying your needs will allow you to choose the best solution, the backpacking stove that best suits your needs.

Where do you intend to use your stove ?

Whether you are an expert hiker, a cyclotourer, a top athlete, a camping enthusiast, or you love family outings, or you are just looking for the most versatile solution, the way you intend to use your backpacking stove will determine the type of burner you’ll need. If you’re planning to use your cooking system internationally, then you should consider fuel transport and supply options. If you are on your own, then a compact gas burner of a few grams should suffice; whereas if you are a group, then a portable barbecue or a gas stove with remote canister will be more efficient and, better yet, more stable to accommodate large pots.

Some examples …

Beyond concerns about cooking power and fuel availability, weight may be among the primary assessment criteria when selecting a stove. Your stove selection may be different whether you are a bikepacker or an ultralight backpacker, the first one will choose a gas or multi fuel stove while the latter individual will prefer an Esbit solid fuel stove.
If you are hiking in a group, then you’ll be able to spread the load out of your large pot, gas -or multi fuel- stove with outboard design, and gas/liquid fuel among your hiking partners. You’ll be able to be together and enjoy simmering meals on a « homelike » type cooker.
If you are a milsim (military simulation) airsofter in OP for several days, then the MRE (self-heating) or military ration (Esbit solid fuel stove) system should suit your activity best.
Have you ever spent the night stranded in your car, due to heavy snow ? If so, you know that you should keep at least a sterilized ration, a self-heating system and a tea bag in your glove box.
Your family enjoys camping trips and you need a stove that makes cooking quick and easy so you can have a relaxed holiday ? A gas stove with remote canister should be perfect for you and carefree especially as canisters can be found in small convenience stores at tourist sites.
You are rather in the bushcraft trend ? Then, the wood burning stove is made for you, it allows you to light a fire almost anywhere in all discretion without risking a fine, or even worse, setting fire !
Used as a backup stove for emergency home use, the compact MSR burner with cartridge included can be stored for years until the next power outage in a nasty storm, when you’ll be able to use it to brew your tea or heat up your freeze-dried meal without worry !

Health and environment

If you use your stove under normal conditions and as recommended, with the right size cooking pot, then there is no risk using any of the stoves described in this guide.

For cooking systems other than gas and wood burning stoves, special attention should be paid to ensure that fuel (gasoline, liquid or solid alcohol, self-heating) does not come into contact with the food or water you’re heating. If contaminated, it’s safer to throw away food and water and to rinse your pot in clean water.

Liquid fuel or alcohol stoves may create a strong burning fuel odor during combustion, sometimes causing discomfort, especially in enclosed spaces (like a tent for example). You should always use these stoves in well ventilated areas.

After boiling water or simmering food, if your fuel has not been fully used up, you must either burn it or pour it back into the original container. Handling fuel left over can be quite a pain. At any rate, you’ll have to let it cool down until you can handle it. Throwing away any fuel left over in the wild is not advised, even if the amount of fuel sums up to a few centiliters. If you add up the amount left by all hikers and users, then you have a considerable negative, if not disastrous, environmental impact in no time, as this is already the case at some mountain refuges or some destination points like Mont Blanc for example.

As with a classic open fire or a barbecue, wood species or treated wooden planks used as fuel may add flavor to your meal, but be careful to choose a wood suitable for cooking food. Steer clear of resinous woods because they produce an unpleasant oily smell when they burn. They are apt to spark though. Hornbeam, oak, beech, ash and birch woods burn hot and well and are risk free.

Discard any damaged canister (bump, rust, valve problem). Gas leaks can be dangerous because any small spark could lead to gas ignition. If in doubt, replace with a new one.
Once empty, gas canisters need to be disposed of in a bin. You can also recycle your spent gas canister. But it’s rather complicated, you must be sure the canister is fully empty. If you run out of gas, that’s simple, your canister is empty. If you are unsure, install your stove and open the canister when it’s upside down (so the stove is under the canister, inverted position) to bleed the fuel. Make sure you’re clear of any source of ignition while doing this. Once the canister is empty, you need to puncture it and then dispose of it in a recycling station, with mixed metals, since fuel canisters are typically made of steel.

If you need more help

If after all that you are still unclear, here are a few tips to help clear things up. In order to choose the right backpacking stove among different models of the same range, consider the following points of comparison :

Weight :

If you carry your backpacking gear, you know every gram counts. Sometimes by saving 10 g here and there, you can end up saving 1 up to 2 kg, and on a long trip, that’s quite something.

Bulk :

Just like your gear weight is an element to consider, you need to take the size of your equipment into account if you want to optimize your packs or keep a stove in the glove box for example.

Power in BTU/h :

One BTU is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree F°. This international measurement unit of energy intensity allows data comparison across manufacturers. Just for the record, 1,000 BTU/h are approximately 293,071 W/h. In concrete words, this British scale of heat output applies to gas stoves. This is a scientific unit that measures the capacity of gas burners. There is another way of comparing the power output of stoves: the time needed to boil 1 liter of water (in a given surrounding: 20°C for the outdoor temperature, no wind…). This value is interesting but it doesn’t take actual energy consumption into account.

Burn time :

Each burner is different and consumes more or less fuel, so it is essential to know the fuel burn time, that is, how fast boil time is for how much output from a typical volume of fuel. Tests and calculations are performed in laboratory under specific conditions, do not hesitate to take note of your results according to your own use and gear. For example, fuel use of the MSR PocketRocket 2 stove is one 220g isobutane canister for one-hour burn time. It boils 1 liter of water in 3 min. 30, so you can boil over 17 liters (or 34 portions of water to prepare your freeze-drying meals!) with a 220g canister.

Options :

Some stoves with the same price range offer interesting options such as piezoelectric igniter, windshield, canister stabilizer or integrated cook pot.

Brand names :

Pick your stove among reputable brand names : MSR, Optimus, Primus, Jetboil or Soto… more reliable than some Chinese fakes that don’t even meet EC standards.

Conclusion

As always, there is no single choice option. The conventional canister stoves are the most versatile of all but have some limitations (weather and transport). All in all, they are the easiest stoves to use and at the top of their qualities is performance. Gasoline and alcohol are less costly, easier to find and are efficient. Wood stoves are the most friendly and traditional of all and they offer a good alternative if you have time to dedicate for cooking.

Matthieu from NoPanic for Freezedried & Co