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What To Look For In A Backpacking Stove

Updated on April 10, 2014

The backpacking stove is one of the most important pieces of equipment you can by for backpacking. A good backpacking stove is designed to be compact and easy to handle and clean with a minimum of tools. The backpacking stove serves in multiple roles while you are in the back country. The obvious is heating up food. Whether you are cooking up some gourmet back country meals, or you just need to heat up some water to rehydrate your meal, the backpacking stove will help you. Another important role is that of sanitizing water, if you find yourself low on water with a water source nearby, you can use your stove to boil and sanitize more drinking water. And don't forget that it can be refreshing to have a warm cup of coffee or hot cocoa on a cold morning. Another reason to use a stove is the fact that the fire is contained.  Some backpacking destinations do not allow open fires, such as fire pits.  The backpacking stove allows you to heat up your meal in locations that will not allow you to start a wood fire.  Let's take a look at some of the designs and features of backpacking stoves.


Canister Fuel vs. Liquid Fuel

 The first big choice you have to make when picking a backpacking stove is if you want to use canister fuels, or liquid fuels.  Let's take a look at each, they both have certain advantages and disadvantages.

Canister Fuel

The biggest advantage of canister stoves is often the size.  There are many stoves, such as the MSR Pocket Rocket, which are minuscule in size.  They take up very little room in your backpack or pocket.  The tiny backpacking stoves are perfect for trips where you want to travel light, or for shorter trips were you do not want to bring too much equipment.  Another advantage for many people is convenience.  You can pick up canisters of fuel from your local sporting goods store and you can even stock up on them so you have plenty for a whole summer of camping.  Another big advantage is in starting the stove.  Thanks to the pressure in the canister, all you have to do is turn the stove to on and light it with a match. 

And now for some of the disadvantages.  One big disadvantage in my opinion is that the canisters are not refillable.  The cost isn't too bad, but if you use a partial canister on a trip you can't just refill it for the next time.  You have to either set it aside to bring a new canister, or bring the old one and a new one, just in case it runs out of fuel while you are using it.  Another disadvantage depending on where you use it is availability.  In many developed countries you may not have a hard time finding the canisters, but travel to more remote locations and you may or may not be able to find more fuel.  Higher elevations or cold weather may also reduce the effectiveness of the canister pressure, resulting in lower performance of the stove.  If you are traveling to your destination by air, it may also be difficult or impossible to bring fuel canisters with you.

Liquid Fuels

With a liquid fuel backpacking stove you will fill a container with fuel, often times white gas, then use a pump of some sort to pressurize the bottle.  Once you have the fuel attached to your stove you may have to let a little fuel into the stove to light on fire, this burning liquid will heat up the fuel in between the bottle and the stove turning it to gas. 

The advantages of liquid fuels include availability and some times multiple sources.  I currently use the MSR Dragonfly.  By changing the nozzle it can use almost any liquid fuel from white gas to kerosene.  You will almost always be able to find something to use in the stove.  I primarily have used white gas, but have on occasion filled the bottle up at the gas station and used regular old unleaded gas.  This gives you a lot of flexibility while traveling.  Another advantage is the fact that you can top off a container.  If you have used a partial bottle of fuel you can always open it up and add more fuel for your next trip.  This helps you to know exactly how much fuel you are taking and reduce the waste of throwing containers away.  If you are traveling by air you can often take an empty and clean bottle on an airplane, then just fill it up to where you are going.

Some of the draw backs of liquid fuel stoves are the fact that it has to be primed.  That refers to the lighting of some fuel before starting the actual stove.  While not overly difficult to do, it is a required step.  Forgetting to prime the stove will result in lower performance until the stove heats up.  In the process of filling and refilling bottles you do need to be careful, otherwise it will lead to fuel spills which could potentially be dangerous.  Also many liquid fuel backpacking stoves use a separate bottle, which means they are a little more bulky than some of the smallest canister stoves.

Which Type Of Stove Do You Prefer?

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Backpacking Stove Size

 Another important consideration when choosing a backpacking stove is the size.  In general when you are backpacking you want everything to be as small and light as possible.  It's a good idea not to overdo this though.  You style of backpacking and hiking will influence what you will need to use.  Maybe you are an ultralight hiker that likes to keep everything extremely light, going so far as to drill holes in the handle of your spoon.  For you, a super small canister stove, such as the MSR Pocket Rocket, or an all in one container, like the Jetboil, may be perfect for you. 

Or perhaps you are going on a longer trip or maybe you have seeral people sharing a stove.  For you a larger stove, such as the MSR Dragonfly that I use might work well.  It will hold larger pans without as much movement.  The Dragonfly uses liquid fuel bottles, which can be purchased in a variety of sizes.  You can get a smaller bottle for short trips or for when you are by yourself, or a larger bottle for long trips and bigger groups.

Remember to think carefully about the size of backpacking stove that you will need.  I love my Dragonfly and will continue to use it, but I have been thinking about getting a Jetboil or Pocket Rocket for shorter trips, or when I want to take a stove on a day hike on colder days.

Making A Decision

 In the end the choice is up to you and without knowing your particular needs and backpacking style, it is impossible to recommend a specific stove.  If you have a chance go by a local sporting goods store that has several models and get a feel for them.  Get an idea of the weight and size of each.  Some specialty stores will even have demonstration models that you can start up.  This is great, you can see the difference between starting a canister stove vs. a liquid fuel stove.  No matter what you choose, you will appreciate being able to light up your backpacking stove while out in the wilderness and make a hot meal or hot drink.


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    • Adventure Colorad profile image

      Adventure Colorad 6 years ago from Denver,CO

      Thank you, I'm glad you found them helpful.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

      These are excellent advice! I've been thinking of getting one for emergencies (and backpacking) and found your tips to be most helpful.