Understanding the Categories of Stoves and Choosing the Best Option for Your Trip
White Gas? Isobutane-Propane? Radiant burner? What does it all mean and what’s the difference?
The process of understanding modern camping stoves can seem daunting to aspiring outdoor enthusiasts, or even to the seasoned camper or hiker who hasn’t shopped for a new stove in a while. Considering the wide variation in stoves on the market today, it can be confusing for anyone to find a starting point in the process of finding a stove that will be appropriate for his or her personal camping style. However, the process is much easier once you can identify what your primary use will be. The type of cooking that you want to do, the amount of weight and volume that you are willing to carry, the temperature and altitude of the environment that you will use the stove in, and how accessible various types of fuel will be in your destination, should all be on your mind when you start looking for a new stove.
There are a few categories in camp stoves, the most common being white gas/variable fuel stoves, isobutane-propane (isopro) blend stoves, and enclosed systems like the Jetboil line of stoves and the MSR Reactor stove. Each of these types of stoves have benefits and detriments. By determining how you will use a stove, you can figure out which of these categories will suit your needs.
Mixed Fuel, Canister Stoves
Ideal for: warm weather hiking and camping, lightweight backpacking, and bike touring
If you are looking for a small, compact backpacking stove, primarily for boiling water, a small stove like the MSR micro rocket or an similar option would be a great choice. This category of stoves is extremely user friendly, lightweight, runs on isobutane/propane blended fuel –which is easy to find at sporting goods stores– and can boil water quickly. This style of stove has a simple, easy to maintain design, and can often fold up small enough to store easily within your cookware. The primary disadvantages of these and other isopro canister stoves is that they do not function reliably in cold temperatures and the fuel canisters are non-refillable, which produces an unnecessary level of waste, as well as difficult to find outside of North America. Additionally, small canister stoves feature a small platform, which makes them less stable and difficult to use when cooking with larger pots and pans. Canister stoves are ideal for boiling water for dehydrated meals, ramen noodles, or oatmeal.
Liquid Fuel Stoves
Ideal for: White gas/liquid fuel-Winter camping and hiking, car camping, mountaineering, group and gourmet cooking, and high altitude use. Multiple fuel- International travel and remote backpacking.
The solution to some of the downfalls of an isopro is to go with a classic white gas/multiple fuel stove like the MSR Whisperlight Universal or the Optimus Nova. Stoves like these and others primarily use refillable white gas tanks, which are more environmentally friendly and burn notably better in cold weather. White gas is also relatively easy to find in outdoor sports stores and other retailers. These stoves can also burn multiple fuels, which can be useful depending on the type of trip you are taking. Depending on the stove, some models can burn white gas, isopro canisters, kerosene and even gasoline! This level of fuel versatility is helpful when camping in remote areas or overseas –anywhere that it may be difficult to procure white gas fuel or canisters.White gas/multiple fuel stoves are the most complex stove systems available. They require priming, assembly and periodic maintenance. Also, it is crucial to understand how to properly operate a white gas stove, since fuel spills and potentially dangerous fires can occur if proper care is not exercised.
These stoves generally have a sturdy platform, which adds stability and easy flame regulation, which makes simmering and cooking easy. If you want to cook gourmet backcountry meals, fry veggies and meat, cook soups or chili, or make omelets and pancakes, a liquid fuel stove is a fantastic choice.
Operating an MSR Liquid Fuel Stove
Integrated Stove Systems
Ideal for: All-season camping and hiking, ski touring, big wall climbing (with a hang kit), or any function where boiling water is the primary goal.
A relatively new and unique type of stove is an integrated system like the Jetboil Sol or the MSR Reactor. These stoves eliminate the need for additional cookware, as they have a self contained pot. Jetboil stoves and MSR Reactor stoves are most effectively used to boil water very quickly and efficiently. Jetboil stoves and the MSR Reactor each use the same isobutane/propane canisters as the mixed fuel canister stoves mentioned above.
All Jetboil stoves and the MSR Reactor each have highly efficient integrated pots with heat-trapping designs facilitate faster boiling time and efficient fuel usage. The self contained design and fuel efficiency make these stoves great options for someone who wants an all inclusive package and doesn’t want to carry as much fuel. Integrated stoves boil water faster than any other style of stove and have a build in wind screen. They are also extremely easy and safe to operate. The downsides to an integrated system is a lack of versatility. Both Jetboil stoves and MSR Reactor stoves are limited to confined, optimized sets of cookware. Due to the compact, efficient design that comes standard with integrated systems, they work best for boiling water to make a dehydrated meal, or similar foods. However, both the Reactor and Jetboil have larger, separate accessory pots and pans for cooking meat, heating soup, or frying an egg. For coffee lovers, integrated systems are the best choice, since both Jetboil and MSR produce french press attachments for their integrated pots.
Alternative, Ultralight Designs
Ideal for: Thru-hiking, ultralight backpacking, minimalist camping
In addition to the three designs detailed above, there are very specialized stove designs that thru-hikers and lightweight backpackers choose, such as alcohol burning stoves, solid fuel stoves and wood burning stoves. These serve a specific purpose, which is to cut weight and make finding fuel easier, yet they are often not practical for a large segment of campers and hikers.
Solid fuel stoves have been around for almost a century, and have been used by military forces around the world due to ease of transport and simple design. are compact and use solid blocks of fuel that are easy to transport. The Esbit Pocket Stove is an example of a solid fuel stove. Wood burning stoves, like the EmberLit stainless stove are also an option for thru-hikers and ultralight campers, since they don’t require you to bring along any fuel! Wood stoves quickly become a problem during or after storms, when dry wood is unavailable. Finally, a very popular stove style with thru-hikers burns denatured alcohol. Denatured alcohol stoves, like the Trangia Westwind are light, packable and the alcohol is easy to find in the U.S.
The disadvantage to all three of these styles of stoves is that none of them burn nearly as hot as Integrated systems, liquid fuel, or canister stoves, so boiling water takes much longer.