A Guide to Backpacking Stoves

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Whether you’ve going camping for the weekend or hiking the Appalachian Trail, a backpacking stove is a useful item to take with you as it’ll let you heat up foot and water on the go.

There are many different kinds of backpacking stoves, so how do you know which one to buy?

The first step to buying a camping stove is to first ask yourself these five questions:

  1. How much money do I want to spend on a backpacking stove?
  2. How many people will the stove be cooking for?
  3. Where will I be using this stove (i.e. where am I going backpacking)?
  4. How cold will it be there?
  5. How readily available is extra fuel (if needed)?

There are five main types of backpacking stoves that you should consider buying. These are wood burning stoves, canister stoves, solid fuel stoves, alcohol stoves and white gas liquid fuel stoves.

Each type has its own set of advantages and disadvantages which we’ll take a look at.

Why Not a Make a Fire Instead?

Whenever you’re with a group of people and you start talking about backpacking stoves, there always seems to be one (possibly pyromanical) person in the group who says: “Why not just make a fire instead?”

If you’re out in the woods, why bring along a heavy camping stove when you have all the fuel you need around you (i.e. leaves and wood)?

Ever been to a park and seen those brown rectangular shapes burnt into the grass by disposable barbeques? Starting a fire on the ground will leave the same mark on the ground (spoiling the look of the area), and is part of the reason why in some outdoor areas in the USA it is actually illegal to start a fire.

Not only do fires leave a mess, they’re also an extremely inefficient way of doing things.

For example, most lightweight backpacking stoves can boil a litre of water in less than five minutes. With a fire, you’ll have to gather the wood, build the fire, light it (which can be tricky in windy conditions) before you can even start boiling your water. Doing things this way the whole process can take well over half an hour.

Wood Burning Stoves

Wait… Didn’t you just say “Don’t make fires”? Isn’t that what wood burning stoves are?

Wood burning stoveWhile campfires aren’t good for cooking on, wood burning backpacking stoves most definitely are, and as you can see from the picture of a wood burning stove, they contain and focus the fire a lot better than an open campfire, meaning they can cook/boil water a lot faster.

Wood burning backpacking stoves are slightly more difficult to start than several other types of stoves (such as canister stoves), as you fire need to start a fire in the stove before turning on a battery-powered blower motor (which is what turns your small ember into a raging inferno).

The best thing about wood burning stoves? As the name suggests, they run on wood (and anything else that you can find to burn – such as leaves, twigs and pine cones). This means you’ll never have to worry about finding (or running out of) fuel – providing you’re in an area where wood is readily available.

Advantages

  • No need to carry fuel with you.
  • ‘Free’ fuel makes them cheap to operate.
  • They’re extremely lightweight (most models weigh around 10 ounces).

Disadvantages

  • If it has been raining, you’ll have trouble starting a fire as all the wood will be wet. Although it is still possible to start a fire with wet wood, you may need to use fire starters to get things started.
  • As with campfires, wood burning stoves are not allowed in some areas.
  • As wood burns it turns to soot and ash. After you’ve finished using your wood burning camping stove you’ll need to take care emptying the soot and ash out without getting it all over yourself.

Canister Stoves

Canister stoves are perhaps the most popular kind of stoves (certainly in most places) and it’s easy to see why.

Canister StoveThey’re cheap to buy, easy to use, compact. A great combination!

To use them, you simply have to attach the canister to the stove, turn on the gas and light it. Simple!

The main downfall of canister stoves, however, is their weight. These stoves can be pretty heavy (compared to other types).

In addition to this, the gas canisters used by these stoves can be expensive, and the canisters cannot be refilled (meaning they’re wasteful).

Advantages

  • They’re extremely easy to use.
  • They’re cheap.

Disadvantages

  • The canisters are expensive.
  • The canisters cannot be refilled.
  • Some canister stoves work poorly in cold weather as the fuel becomes de-pressurized.

Solid Fuel Stoves

These stoves are powered by heating up a small slab (or ‘brick’) or Trioxane, and are said to be used by some militaries.

The main downside of using Trioxane is that the fumes produced can be deadly (which is why they should only ever be used in extremely well ventilated areas).

In addition to this, because the fuel is in the form of a block that must be burnt, it cannot be turned on and off (like a gas canister can). Instead, you must burn the block completely when using it, so you’re restricted by how long you can use the stove for.

On the upside, solid fuel stoves are the lightest types of stoves on the market (with some weighing less than a single ounce!)

Advantages

  • They’re the lightest camping stoves on the market.
  • They’re cheap to buy.
  • Their fuel is small, compact and easy to store, making them ideal to use as emergency stoves.

Disadvantages

  • They must be used in well ventilated areas due to the harmful fumes.
  • They cook/boil water slowly (compared to most other types of stove).
  • The block of fuel must be burnt completely when being used.

Alcohol Stoves

Alcohol backpack stoveAlthough alcohol backpacking stoves have been used for many years, their lightweight nature has made them increasingly popular with the rise of lightweight backpacking.

Alcohol backpacking stoves can be bought, but, most people choose to make them themselves, as doing so is fairly simple (with most people using tuna tins or beer cans to form the stove).

Advantages

  • Can be made for ‘free’.
  • They’re extremely lightweight.
  • The fuel required (alcohol) is readily available in most areas (unlike many other fuels used by other stoves).

Disadvantages

  • Controlling the heat/temperature is difficult with alcohol stoves.
  • Most of these stoves will have a fairly low maximum temperature, meaning cooking/boiling water will take a while.

Liquid Fuel Stoves

These backpacking stoves are the heaviest on the market and can be difficult to light, but they have one advantage over every other type of stove on the market: They continue to work well in cold weather (as they’re often said to work with ‘four-season efficiency’).

Liquid Fuel StovesIn addition to this, most liquid fuels (such as kerosene) are extremely efficient and effective. Because of this, these work well as emergency stoves (as part of a ‘survival kit’).

The one major downside of liquid fuel stoves is that they can flare up occasionally and burn the user. On well-maintained and properly used stoves this is rare, however, although it does sound scary.

Liquid fuel stoves are not recommended for beginners or for people simply going camping for the weekend. Their main benefit is that they work in cold weather, so they should be limited to those who will be exposed to such weather conditions.

Advantages

  • These backpacking stoves work well in all temperatures and conditions.
  • Fuel is often readily available, as various fuels can be used.

Disadvantages

  • They’re the heaviest stoves on the market.
  • They’re expensive.
  • They can be difficult to light.
  • They need to be maintained and used properly (or else they can produce potentially dangerous flare ups).

As you can see, there are many different types of backpacking stoves out there – each suited to different situations. Because of this, some backpackers own more than one type so they can pick and choose depending on where they’re going.


Related posts:

  1. A Guide to Backpacking Water Filters
  2. How to Travel Light – The Principles of Lightweight Backpacking




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