While you might be able to go without a lot of things when you hit the trails, you will definitely need a backpacking stove. Since minimalism is the name of the game when you are in the backcountry, starting a fire for cooking is an unrealistic use of time, effort, and energy. Fire-building can also be prohibited due to burn bans in dry and wildfire-prone areas.
When it comes to needing to quickly go from a completely filled pack and a pair of aching feet to reclining against a tree with a hot meal, absolutely nothing can beat the speed and efficiency of a backpacking stove!
How do you choose the right backpacking stove for you? Here are some questions to consider as you start your search:
How Much Water Can I Boil at Once?
It can be tempting to go straight for the backpacking stove with the widest base and biggest flame, but hold on! If you are striking out on your own, you will only need to boil water for your own meals and drinks. Do not waste your time looking at larger-capacity stoves with bigger burners and wider supports.
If you are aware of exactly how much water you will be likely to use, you will avoid wasting space in your pack and adding weight.
However, if you are planning on hitting the trails with a companion (or two, or more!) you will likely want a stove with a broader base and larger pan capacity.
How Long Until the Water Boils?
When you are hungry and tired at the end of a long day on the trail, the thing you will want most is a hot meal. Most backpacking meals require little more than boiling water to prepare, so the time you need to wait from unpacking your stove to eating depends mainly on how long the stove takes to boil water.
Different stoves boil water at different rates, depending on both on the kind of fuel they use and the size of the pan you have.
If you plan to cook meals that require simmering, you will want to look for a stove with an adjustable flame. If you are hoping to cook food, like pancakes or scrambled eggs, you will want both an adjustable flame and a broader burner profile to prevent your food from burning to the pan.
Consider, too, the type of cookware you plan on carrying.
Very light cookware does not distribute heat very well, so while it might be great for boiling water, it is not good for heating food evenly. Heavier cookware distributes heat better, but remember that every ounce counts when backpacking! This is the reason that most backpackers choose ultralight cookware and stoves that are great for boiling water (and not much else).
What Kind of Fuel Will I Need to Use?
The kind of fuel that your stove uses is a big consideration. It is worth researching whether the kind of fuel your stove needs will be readily available in the places you plan to travel. For example, if you plan on backpacking overseas, you would need to make sure that a compatible fuel for your stove is sold there, since many types of fuel are on the no-fly list.
- Liquid fuel (commonly called white gas) is a popular choice with backpackers because it is inexpensive and easy to obtain, but the stoves that use this kind of fuel require that you manually pressurize (pump) them each time you use it. This type of fuel also performs well in a variety of temperatures, and can be refilled easily.
- Canister fuel is usually a combination of isobutane and propane. Many of these canisters are single-use. While some people find this convenient, it also means you are not able to customize the amount of fuel you need for a trip. Canisters are also the most likely type of stove to be affected by temperature drops.
- Biomass stoves use wood (such as twigs, bark, and pinecones) for fuel. The benefit of biomass is that you do not have to carry any fuel at all, which saves on weight in your pack. However, the usefulness of a stove like this is completely dependent on being able to find enough fuel for it every time you use it.
- Alcohol is a popular fuel for backpacking stoves because it burns very hot, and alcohol is easy to obtain in the United States. Alcohol-powered stoves also tend to be lightweight and inexpensive, but with no way to adjust the flame they are typically only good for boiling water.
- If you are going ultralight, you might want to consider solid fuel. These super-lightweight solid alcohol tablets have a long life and burn very hot, but can leave a residue on the bottom of your cookware. They can also be challenging to find outside of camping specialty stores.
Once you decide on the type of fuel you want to use, you can begin to sort through the stoves that utilize it. Make sure that the kind of fuel you decide on is readily available in your area to save yourself the headache of having to hunt it down later!
What If It’s Windy? Cold?
The wind is the enemy of small flames, and a windy day can make maintaining a flame on your backpacking stove a real challenge! Some stoves are better suited for use in windy climates, and many come with windscreens, or can be used with an after-market windscreen.
However, remember that some stoves are more suited to being fully shielded than others. If your stove requires a lot of ventilation to function, it will be more challenging to maintain a good flame in windy conditions. Remember, too, that windy conditions can knock over a very lightweight stove, so the stability of the stove’s base is important.
If you are planning to do cold-weather backpacking, you will need to consider the ways in which temperature might affect the kind of fuel you utilize. Not all stoves behave in the same way when it is cold, which is bad news if you were hoping for a cup of hot chocolate!
For example, if you are using canister fuel in cold weather, make sure you can adjust it. Since the flow of fuel in a canister is greatly affected by cold temperatures, being able to manually adjust it is necessary if you are hoping for a hot meal on a cold day. A regulator will make the stove heavier, but that might be a tradeoff that is worth it if you plan on backpacking in very cold temperatures.
How Much Does it Weigh?
Here is the question you probably assumed we would answer first, right? Wrong! While the weight of any item you put in your pack when heading out on the trail is a vital consideration, it should not be the first thing you look for in a stove.
It is much easier to decide the type of stove that will best meet your needs and then select the lightest stove in that category that will fit your budget. The amount of water that you will need to boil and the type of fuel that you like are the most important considerations, since all backpacking stoves are fairly lightweight. Of course, like all things backpacking, the price of stoves is usually inversely related to how light they are.
Packability is also a consideration closely related to weight. Typically, the more lightweight a stove is, the smaller it will pack down, but this is not always the case. You might find that you are willing to add just a little weight to your pack in exchange for the room a smaller, slightly heavier stove offers.
Remember, too, that the tradeoff of some features that add a little weight or size – like a regulator for a canister stove – might be necessary if you plan to use it in cold weather.
Simmering It All Down: Choosing the Best Backpacking Stove For You
When it comes to selecting the right backpacking stove, first consider how much water you will need to be able to heat at once and what type of pan you want to use. Then, further narrow your options by deciding what kind of fuel you would feel comfortable using. Finally, select within those options for the special features you will need, like wind-resistance or cold-temperature ignition.
Whatever you choose, you should always travel with a backup fire-starting system – matches, a lighter, or a flint and steel- just in case your stove’s ignition system fails, or your stove fails altogether and you need to build a fire. Happy backcountry cooking to you!
What is your favorite meal to eat on the trail? What is one meal you wish you could take with you when you are backpacking? Let us know!