Backpacking Stoves: How To Choose The Best One For You
A Guide to Different Types of Backpacking Stoves, and the Pros and Cons of Each
Tin Hat Mountain: Sunshine Coast Trail, BC, Canada - Photo Credit: Steve Edgerton
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Like all outdoor gear, the best stove for backpacking is a highly personal choice, and will depend on your environment, trip duration, and overall preferences.
Different backpacking stoves vary dramatically in price, fuel sources, features, and weight. Some specialize in boiling water blazingly fast, some have features ideal for properly cooking food, and others are designed to be reliable even through the worst conditions imaginable.
Picking the “best” backpacking stove means picking the best stove for you and your particular needs. This guide will help you do that. We dive into the specific stove features to consider, the different types of backpacking stoves, and share our favorite stoves for every kind of backpacking adventure.
Car Camping Stove: Not For Backpacking! - Photo Credit: Andrew Welch
Backpacking Stoves vs. Camping Stoves
Stoves are a staple of any car camping setup. So what makes stoves for backpacking so much different?
In short, the difference is portability and efficiency. Backpacking stoves have only a single burner, and are as lightweight and compact as possible. Many are designed to boil water quickly, offering few opportunities for simmering and temperature control.
Typical camping stoves are for car camping in developed campgrounds, where you can drive right into your campsite with all your gear in tow. They generally feature two burners, are fueled by propane, and operate more like the stovetop in your kitchen: they let you effectively boil water, simmer stews, and flip flapjacks. Camping stoves are versatile, but are too heavy and bulky for backcountry camping when you are hauling all your gear in a backpack.
Integrated Canister Stove - Photo Credit: Kyle Peyton
Backpacking Stove Features to Consider
All backpacking stoves are light and packable for travel in the backcountry, but different models will still offer their own particular sets of advantages and disadvantages.
Here are the most important features to consider:
Efficiency and Boil Time: Backpacking stoves often use the British Thermal Unit (BTU) to measure efficiency. The BTU represents the heat required to warm one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. Generally, a higher BTU indicates faster boil times and greater fuel consumption.
Wind Resistance: Well-designed stoves can balance fuel efficiency and boil times with wind-resistant features. Windscreens, aerodynamic designs, and auto-relighting burners will keep stoves burning effectively and consistently.
Temperature Control: Many backpackers only use stoves to boil water for oatmeal, coffee, and dehydrated backpacking meals. So, some backpacking stoves focus on boiling water quickly and efficiently, but do not give you much control over cooking or simmering “real” meals. More involved cooking requires a stove with good temperature control.
Weight and Packed Size: Almost all backpacking stoves weigh less than a pound, and many can pack up to fit right inside your kettle or pot. Ultralight, minimal options, like alcohol stoves, can weigh as little as an ounce or two. Integrated canister stoves and liquid fuel stoves will be heavier, but are far more versatile and efficient. (We’ll dive deeper into these different stove types a bit later.)
Ignition: Backpacking stoves require an external ignition source, whether it be matches, a lighter, or even a flint striker. You should always carry two ignition sources with you. Store them separately and in Ziploc bags. Having a stove, fuel, and ingredients for a delicious meal - but no way to make any of it useful - is an experience we would not wish upon anyone.
Screw-On Canister Stove - Photo Credit: Tommy Lisbin
Backpacking Stove Types
Most stoves for backpacking fit into five general categories. Each category has particular strengths and weaknesses, making them better suited to different environments, trip lengths, and experience levels.
Foreseeing what kind of backpacking trips you’ll likely be undertaking will help you find the best stove for your needs.
Screw-On Canister Stoves: These stoves screw right into tiny isobutane fuel canisters, and are probably the most ubiquitous type of backpacking stove. They are light, easy to use, and not overly expensive. The best ones, like the MSR PocketRocket 2, even offer accurate temperature control, making them great for the more involved backcountry chefs.
The downsides of screw-on canister stoves are instability and poor wind resistance. The isobutane canisters themselves are the stove base, and won’t safely support larger pots. This design also means you cannot use a windscreen, as trapping heat around the canister may cause an explosion. The flame will persist through most windy conditions, but boil times increase, demanding more fuel.
Integrated Canister Stoves: By combining stove and cup into one device, integrated canister stoves specialize in one thing: boiling water really fast, and really efficiently. These all-in-one stove systems, like the Jetboil Flash, have a heat exchanger and built-in windscreen to maximize efficiency. They are popular with beginner backpackers seeking a streamlined, easy-to-use cook system.
They are more expensive and heavier than other canister stoves, and only serve to boil water, but integrated canister stoves are worth it for those seeking simplicity and efficiency.
Remote Canister Stoves: Remote canister stoves share many of the same advantages as their screw-on counterparts, but avoid their pitfalls by using a fuel line to separate fuel and stove. They are more stable, making them better for larger pots and feeding large groups. Separating the fuel from the heat source also allows you to use a windscreen, improving their performance in windy conditions. The best ones, like the MSR Windburner, are ideal for cooking real meals, or boiling water in greater quantities.
The fuel line does make them heavier than other canister stoves and adds another component to maintain and potentially repair.
Liquid Fuel Stoves: Liquid fuel refers to any fuel that is, well, liquid in form. This includes white gas, kerosene, diesel, and unleaded gasoline. Liquid fuel stoves can work with multiple fuel types. This versatility has made them a favorite for international travel, where you may not know what sort of fuel options will be available from country to country. They are also very repairable and fuel-efficient, ideal for extended treks. Newer models, such as the MSR Dragonfly, also have excellent temperature control.
The downsides of liquid fuel stoves include slow boil times, their many pieces and components, and a steeper learning curve: you need to compress your fuel bottle manually and prime the stove by lighting fuel in the stove area and letting it burn off. Once a backcountry staple, liquid fuel stoves are now mostly specialist tools for alpinists and trekking guides.
Alcohol Stoves: Ultralight backpacking enthusiasts are fond of alcohol stoves. They are cheap, have no moving (or breakable) parts, and are incredibly light. They are essentially just a metal container with air holes: you fill it with denatured alcohol, light it, and place a pot on top to boil water as the alcohol burns off. You can buy an alcohol stove, like the TOAKS Titanium Siphon, or even make your own from an aluminum can.
These stoves have a long boil time, offer no flame control, and don’t perform well in rainy or windy weather. An open container of flaming alcohol isn’t exactly the safest thing, either - especially not during wildfire season! Overall, alcohol stoves are not a great choice for casual backpackers. They are best for experienced thru-hikers hiking thousands of miles—when ultralight and failsafe gear is a priority.
Screw-On Canister Stove - Photo Credit: Kevin Schmid
Choosing the Best Backpacking Stove for You
Hopefully you now have a better idea of the best backpacking stove for your adventures. They will all have pros and cons, depending on the type of trip, so acquiring multiple stoves as you gain experience and begin planning more diverse trips is often the best solution.
If you’re just beginning your backpacking journey, a screw-on or integrated canister stove will serve you well. They are easy to use, affordable, and super packable, providing everything you’ll need for most weekend trips in the woods.
Once your stove and the rest of your backpacking gear are in order, it’s time to get out backpacking! If you’re looking for more help to make your backcountry trips happen, check out how Pathloom’s outdoor trip planning app makes hitting the trails easier than ever!
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