Backpacking Stoves – Choosing the Right Fuel Type

Shopping for backpacking stoves isn’t complicated, but there are a few important factors to consider. Occasional campers, serious backpackers, and international travelers all may have different things in mind when choosing a backpacking stove. You’ll have to decide if you want something compact and lightweight, rugged and reliable, powerful, versatile, or all of the above. And you do have one major decision to make at the outset: do you want a canister or liquid fuel backpack stove?Canister Backpacking StovesCanister stoves have become increasingly popular in the U.S. for their ease of use. Canister camping and backpacking stoves burn butane, propane or isobutane locked in sealed canisters. There are no worries about filling up fuel bottles, which is a major convenience. On the other hand you’ll need to stock up on fuel canisters–and be sure to carry the empties out with you.Canister stoves do have some clear advantages, and are now favored by many backpackers. One major convenience is that canister stoves are easy to light, with no pumping or priming required. The flame adjusts easily, which makes canister stoves great for actual cooking, beyond just bringing water to a boil. Some integrated canister fuel stoves like the Jetboil Personal Cooking System and MSR Reactor come with stove and cook pot combined into a single compact package.What are the disadvantages of a canister stove? You may not like being dependent on finding fuel canisters that will work with your particular stove model. In the past that’s been a problem particularly for people who travel a lot, and must buy fuel as needed along the way. Increasingly however many of the newer stoves are compatible with a variety of sealed canister fuel types available worldwide.With fuel included, canister backpacking stoves are often a little heavier than most liquid fuel stoves, though there are exceptions. The ultra-light and compact MSR Pocket Rocket is a great example. You must dispose of the canisters–they can’t be recycled. Be aware also that canister stoves that burn butane or propane perform poorly (or not at all) in below-freezing conditions. For colder weather choose an isobutane model like the Primus EtaPower.Liquid Fuel Backpacking StovesThe main alternative to canister stoves, liquid fuel stoves come into several different categories. A basic distinction is between stoves that burn white gas only, and multi-fuel stoves that can burn a variety of liquid fuel types. White gas-burning stoves were the traditional choice of backpackers for decades, and still are favored by many. The fuel is widely available, burns hots, and performs well in very cold conditions.Multi-fuel stoves tend to be more expensive, but provide the major advantage of running on practically anything. The MSR Dragonfly for example can burn white gas, regular automotive gas, diesel, aviation fuel and other solvents. Other models like the Coleman Exponent are categorized as “dual fuel” stoves, burning white gas and unleaded gasoline only.Having a stove that can be powered by multiple fuel types is particularly important for international travelers, since white gas is unavailable in many places. Multi-fuel expedition stoves like the Optimus Nova are designed to perform well on any fuel in practically any conditions.While comparing liquid fuel stoves make sure you know which type is which, as the differences between white gas and multifuel stoves are not always clear. An MS or AF at the end of a stove’s name means it’s a multifuel stove. The MSR WhisperLite Shaker Jet is a white gas stove, while the MSR Whisperlite Internationale is multifuel.Hybrid Backpack StovesIn recent years some great new stoves have appeared which bridge the canister-liquid fuel divide. Foremost among these is the Primus EtaPower MF (not the EF), which can run on isobutane canisters AND various liquid fuels. The Coleman Exponent Fyrestorm Ti can run on butane/propane canisters, or switch to liquid fuel in colder conditions. The Brunton Vapor AF is another interesting canister/liquid fuel hybrid.The best advice is to take a look at several different stoves, and try them out if you can. Think about what factors matter most to you, and what stove will best meet your needs and personal tastes. You can find more information about canister and liquid fuel backpacking stoves at the author’s backpack gear website.