As a search and rescue team crew leader, Outbound Dan Human delivers his best tips for hiking safely in all seasons.
My Favorite Stove
Whether preparing for the impending garden gnome apocalypse, setting out for a weekend camping trip, or backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail, you'll need a lightweight stove to boil water and cook your vittles.
Or maybe you'll need more than one. Over the years I've found that certain stoves are suited best for specific situations. Of course, I have a lot of stoves to meet those situations...
From homemade soda can alcohol stoves and simple Esbit burners to complex multi-fuel wonders of backpacking engineering, there are a lot of stoves to choose from.
Ask yourself the following questions when hunting for a new stove:
- How much do I want to spend on a stove?
- How much do I want to spend on fuel?
- Where am I going backpacking?
- How cold will it get where I am going?
- How many people am I cooking for?
- How available is the fuel that I need?
.So which stove is my favorite? It depends...
- Ultralightweight summer backpacking: Titanium Esbit stove
- Summer canoeing and small group backpacking: MSR Pocket Rocket
- Winter backpacking: MSR WhisperLite International
Why Not a Fire?
When I teach backpacking to people and start going over stoves, someone always asks about cooking over a fire. Sure there is a bit of romance in roasting over flames, hearing the crackling wood, and staring at the embers, but (for the most part) backpackers don't cook over fires.
First, there are some serious Leave No Trace issues with cooking over a fire. Because of careless backcountry visitors, in places like the Adirondack High Peaks, it is illegal to start fires.
Second, cooking over fires is an inefficient way of cooking. How inefficient? A lightweight canister stove like an MSR Pocket Rocket will go from the backpack to boiling a quart of water in under 5 minutes. Whereas with a campfire, after gathering wood, building, and lighting, you are looking for at least a half-hour till boiling. Now, just imagine if you're using wet wood!
If using a wood burner, start picking up small pieces of wood and other fuel or kindling along the trail for the last half-hour of your hike. This way you are ready to cook as soon as you arrive at camp.
I know what you are thinking, "Didn't he just say that campfires are a lousy and potentially destructive way to cook?"
Yes, campfires are lousy for cooking, but wood-burning stoves like the ZZ Sierra Stove can boil a quart of water in about 5 minutes. In fact, when I walked from Maine to Georgia along the Appalachian Trail, the Sierra Stove was my choice to cook my daily meals.
So, how does it work? First, you kindle a small fire in the stove of anything that might burn: wood, pine cones, paper, witches, whatever you have on hand. Then turn on the blower motor, which is powered by one AA battery (a battery will last about six hours). The blower turns your stove into a mini blast furnace. Fill up the stove with more fuel, and cook. All materials will burn down to ash.
- No need to carry fuel or worry about fuel resupply.
- This is an effective and safe way for backpackers to achieve the ambiance of a fire.
- Lowest cost of operation of any stove.
- Lightweight - the titanium version weighs 10 oz.
- Though wet wood burns, fire starters are needed and the burn temperature decreases.
- Soot from the stove will require special handling of the pot to avoid getting black residue over you and your gear.
- In certain fire danger areas, wood-burning stoves may not be approved.
Use a foam sleeping pad as a windscreen for your Esbit stove; just don't let it get too close!
Looking for a stove weighing less than an ounce?
Solid Fuel Stoves
This was my first type of stove—I received a "heat tab" stove for my birthday when I was a Webelos Scout. Immediately, I ventured to the "woods" to heat up a cup of soup and bask in the glory of self-reliance.
We used these kinds of stoves in the Army, too. Just a small brick of Trioxane under a canteen cup would bring water to a boil. Of course, the noxious fumes may kill you; I learned an important lesson about using these stoves in a well-ventilated area.
If you're looking for a lightweight alternative, my titanium solid fuel stove, made by UST (now made by Esbit) only weighs 11 grams. Yes, a stove that weighs under an ounce!
So how do they work? Simple, stick a cube on the stove, light it, and set a pot on top. Generally, a small brick of Esbit will bring 2 cups of water to boil in about 7 minutes.
- Lightest weight stove systems on the market
- Stoves are the most inexpensive to buy.
- Because of the easy storage of fuel, these stoves are perfect for emergency kits.
- Slow cooking time makes this ineffective for heating large amounts of water.
- Some fuels leave sticky soot on the bottom of cooking pots.
- Some fuels don't extinguish well so must be burned completely (all or nothing)
Ever thought about making your own lightweight stove? Do it yourself enthusiasts build alcohol stoves from everything from cat food cans to Heineken beer cans. Of course, if you aren't handy, you can always buy one too.
Alcohol Stoves have been around for decades and have experienced a surge of popularity with the ultralightweight backpacking craze.
Alcohol stoves burn a variety of fuels: denatured alcohol, grain alcohol, methyl alcohol, and gelled fuel. Most stoves operate simply, by adding fuel, lighting, and covering to extinguish. Generally, most alcohol stoves will boil 2 cups of water in about 7 minutes with about an ounce of fuel.
- Lightweight stoves are often inexpensive or even "free."
- Fuel is widely available.
- Alcohol stoves have low heat output so are not ideal for heating large amounts of water.
- Most models are difficult to achieve flame control.
If the mercury dips, keep your isopro canisters warm by carrying them in your jacket and storing them overnight in your sleeping bag.
Looking for an all in one stove?
These stoves have become increasingly popular over the last few years because of their low cost, compact size, and extreme ease of use. Though the screw-on propane stoves look very similar, let them sit on the big box shelf if you plan on backpacking. Propane stoves are quite heavy—downfall number one. Plus propane isn't nearly as efficient as is the backpacking canister mix of isobutane and propane like MSR IsoPro.
These stoves are the simplest to use. Just screw the stove onto the can of iso-butane, turn the gas knob, and light.
Self-contained models, like the Jetboil PCS (yes mine is camouflage, please don't make fun of me) keep the fuel, burner, and pot in one apparatus. Jetboils are extremely fuel-efficient with one 100-gram canister bringing 10 liters of water to a boil. However, because of the construction of the stove, you lose the freedom of choosing various cookware.
- Moderately priced stoves.
- EASY to use!
- Canisters cannot be refilled which creates a lot of waste.
- Fuel for these stoves is the most expensive.
- In cold weather, most canister stoves stop working effectively because of the depressurization of the fuel. Some stoves like the Soto Microregulator, correct this problem.
The perfect stove for survivalists too
White Gas Liquid Fuel Stoves
If you are looking for a cost-efficient stove with four-season efficiency, look toward the liquid fuel stoves. However, this is also the one type of stove that really scares people.
Yes, occasional flareups will happen with white gas stoves, usually because of poor maintenance or experimental greenhorns. As with all stoves, keep a bottle of water on hand to deal with burns.
This class of stoves burns liquid fuel like white gas (Coleman fuel), kerosene, jet fuel, or even unleaded gasoline. In most models, the fuel is poured into a reusable fuel container which is pressurized with a hand pump. The liquid fuel vaporizes into a gas when heated and ignites into hot cones of controllable heat.
Though these stoves can be tricky to light and are the heaviest available in the backpacking market, they are the only choice for cold-weather camping, expedition use, and large group cooking. Liquid fuel stoves are also ideal for long-term disaster survival kits and for the "preppers" amongst us. Just look for a model which burns multiple fuels like the Whisperlite International or the MSR Dragonfly.
- Most cost-effective fuel
- Fuel is readily available, even during international travel
- Works well even in temperatures below zero
- Stoves have the highest initial cost.
- Stoves require priming and require practice to light.
- Liquid fuel stoves require maintenance.
This page © Copyright 2012, Daniel Human
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on May 08, 2012:
Though I love white gas, it can be a nightmare to use and take care of. Esbit on the other hand, you just light with a match and set your pot on top of. I'm sure he'll have a great time anyway - little challenges like figuring out how to prime a stove makes treks a little more memorable.
Thanks for finding me and reading Tony!
Tony Flanigan from East London, South Africa on May 08, 2012:
I am so kicking myself for not finding your hub earlier! We've just sent Teresa's 14 year old son out for a 1 week hike with gas stove, and Basti is very nervous about having it along. For his purposes, just to boil water, an Esbit would have been ideal. Thanks for an enlightening, wake-up-dude Hub. Definitely UUI!
Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on March 14, 2012:
Oh I agree, I too love cooking over an open fire when I'm a little more sedentary. I think you might really like the sierra stove though - they are quite cool. Now that they have a titanium version, they are lighter than ever too. Thanks Jimmar!
jimmar from Michigan on March 14, 2012:
Nice! Lots of good info. I have a butane stove but I like the heavy Coleman Dual-Fuel stove. Never tried a wood burner, I think I need to. When there is a fire pit of some kind I prefer to cook on a fire. It takes some practice but you can beat bacon, blueberry pancakes and coffee over an open fire.
Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on March 12, 2012:
Exactly Steve, it is pretty hard to give up a stove anyway. Thanks for stopping by Steve.
steveoutdoorrec on March 12, 2012:
Nicely done again OBD. I've had long discussions on the trail about which is better my Sierra stove or my Dragonfly. I won't part with either one for the very reasons you give.
Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on March 12, 2012:
Wood burners are pretty awesome, even though (after 15 years) it is time to replace the blower motor on mine. I honestly think it is the best option for long term backpacking - just pop in a new battery every couple weeks.
Way to be prepared! I keep a white gas stove in the big survival kit and an esbit stove in the small one.
Thanks for stopping by Simone!
Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on March 12, 2012:
This is incredibly useful. I hadn't even SEEN a wood burner before this! I've just always used liquid fuel stoves. They're so convenient.
Great overview, Outbound Dan. And thanks for reminding me to add a liquid fuel stove to my disaster kit!
Dan Human (author) from Niagara Falls, NY on March 12, 2012:
Luckily I don't charge what Outward Bound charges for camping and survival :)
If you are accident-prone, you may want to skip the stove and opt for peanut butter and a spoon. Actually, I'd probably lean toward the jetboil - nice, fast little system.
Thanks again, for hitting those buttons and stopping by cclitgirl!
Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on March 12, 2012:
OD - I feel like I'm in outward bound school every time I read your hubs. But I bookmark many of them: I have backpacked in the desert and tried to summit some of those 14ers in Colorado, but I still feel like I am "specially challenged" when it comes to survival. I'm sooo accident-prone. So, thank you for these short courses in human survival - you just might save my life some day. ;) Voted up/U/A/I.