Now that campfires in California (and many other western states and provinces) are a thing of the past, it's looking like camp and backpacking stoves are going to be the sole means we have to fry bacon and boil water for coffee. Here's how to find the right one for you.
Which Fuel Is Right For You? Well, I suppose we should ask: do you plan to carry your stove in a backpack? If not, and you're just car or motorcycle camping, then propane is the right fuel for you. The pressurized tanks are big and heavy, but they're universally available in pretty much any sporting goods or DIY store here in the city or any general store or gas station out in the bush. They also provide a consistent, variable heat that's capable of both rapidly boiling water or providing fine simmer control for frying stuff up in a pan. Propane stoves are also cheap. If you plan on car camping, get a flexible hose and drag along one of those big five-gallon canisters you use on your grill at home; they provide much, much more cooking time than the small, 16oz green bottles, actually boil water faster and you can stick them under your picnic table, freeing up space.
The new Coleman Hyperflame promises more efficient cooking than its classic two-burner design, but is more expensive at $160.
But what if space and weight are a concern? Well, then things get a bit more complicated. Liquid fuel stoves drastically shed weight and size, but their fuel can be harder to find, the stoves are harder to light and they're much less optimal for any type of cooking beyond boiling water.
Some stoves require a specific type of fuel (ie white gas) while others are omnivores — stoves that can run on gasoline, kerosene, alcohol or pretty much anything else combustible.
Liquid fuel canisters are user-refillable while pressurized isobutene/propane canisters are pressurized. The former makes it easier to monitor usage and evaluate remaining fuel levels, while the latter is more convenient and easier to use.
MSR's refillable fuel canisters give its stoves the ability to burn anything from kerosene to white gas.
Any time you're dealing with pressurized liquid fuel, you need to be very careful. Its containers and stoves are not nearly as idiot proof as propane is.
There's also solid fuel stoves, which have the advantage of being both incredibly lightweight and rugged (no moving parts!), but provide very short cooking times and no flame variability. For boiling water only.
Alcohol stoves use a liquid fuel that's unpressurized. The simplest and most effective of which is also the cheapest stove option available — the cat food can stove. Again, you're only using one of these to boil a small amount of water to sterilize it, rehydrate food or make coffee.
Wood stoves like the flashy new BioLite designs sound great, but require much care, attention and labor to use and may violate fire restrictions in some areas. Expect exceptionally long cooking times.
Any time you're at altitude or in below-freezing conditions, white gas is going to work best.
How Many Burners Do You Need? Nothing beats one of those big, two-burner Coleman camp stoves if you're cooking for a group. But, you'd never want to carry one anywhere. The rest are going to be one-burner designs. With those, look for generous pot supports and stable bases. If the burner sits on top of the fuel bottle, make sure it fits as low as possible (for stability) and take pains to use it on a level, solid surface.
How Hot Is Hot? Stove outputs are measured in BTUs. The more BTUs, the more powerful the stove is and, all other things being equal, the faster it'll boil a set amount of water.
You'll also see boil times, typically for one liter of water. When cross shopping, compare stoves by BTUs, boil times and price. You want the most, the quickest and the cheapest in the smallest and lightest package possible.
What Type Of Cooking Do You Want To Do? Think about the way you'll want to use a stove. Are you literally just boiling water? If so, you can go drastically simple and cheap and pick up a stove that just does one thing — max power. For anything beyond rehydrating backpacking meals, you're going to need variable output so you can simmer or fry. You'll also need a pan, so consider its weight when building your backpacking system.
Wind and Altitude: It takes longer to boil water and cook food the higher you go, so pack extra fuel. Some stoves incorporate wind shields or heat reflectors; those work great at focusing a stove's heat and reducing cook times. You can always make your own shield with a bit of aluminum foil; it'll be just as effective as a store-bought item, and lighter, but not as rugged.
Cookware: Some stoves are now incorporating specially designed pots, mugs or similar into their stoves. The advantage is that coils on the bottom of these capture the stove's heat and transfer it to the water in a more efficient manner for shorter boil times. JetBoil is the most well known maker of these systems. We prefer Primus' designs, which lock the mug to the burner, meaning you can hang the whole thing while cooking — great if you don't have a level surface to work with or just some added stability and safety any other time.
Whatever you're cooking or boiling water with, make sure it has a lid as retaining the heat you generate will use less fuel and cook faster.
Which stove is right for you? If you just want to boil water, there is no lighter, simpler, cheaper and more effective solution than the cat food can stove. However, it isn't going to boil quite as fast as a proper backpacking stove.
We're big fans of Snow Peak's light, elegant, stable and rugged GigaPower stoves. Those start at $40 (without the isobutene/propane canister) and provide both rapid boil times and good simmer control.
Lighter, more powerful and more complicated stoves exist if you need something with specific capabilities or to fit into a specific camping system. Compare stoves by their output (BTUs), boil times and weight, keeping in mind which fuel you'd like to use. There's a huge variety of stoves available, none of which is bestest or moistest, it's up to you to determine which most effectively meets your individual needs. Or, just pack some Clif bars.
Photos: Chris Brinlee Jr
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