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Gear Guide

How to Choose a Stove

Stoves vs. Fires Propane / Butane / IsobuteneWhite Gas Multi-fuel
Alcohol Solid Fuel Pot Sets Windscreens

Stoves vs. Fires

Cooking over a campfire conjures up many romantic images, but as more and more people discover the joys of outdoor activity, it is quickly becoming a thing of the past. The forests around more popular campsites are barren of wood and environmental concerns prevent us from removing branches from live trees (not to mention that green wood doesn't burn). Add this to the facts that wet wood is nearly impossible to work with, that an ax or hatchet is heavier than any camp stove on the market and that many parks in Canada and the U.S. are banning open fires, or imposing fire restrictions during the drier times of the summer and you will begin to realize that packing your own "fire" has definite advantages.

Stoves have their own drawbacks: many types use fuels that come from non-renewable resources (not to mention that the method of extraction is often less than environmentally sound); small stoves are not really suitable for large groups of people; many stoves on the market are finicky and require some playing around before they operate properly. Still, when all is said and done, the convenience and lightweight of stoves usually wins out. The hard part is deciding what stove is right for you. This is usually determined by what type of fuel the stove uses.

 Propane / Butane / Isobutene:

The main advantage of these fuels is their ease of use: strike a match, turn the knob and presto - a nice blue flame that is easy to control with a great simmer. But these fuels do have problems. The fuel is stored as a liquid in sealed metal canisters under extreme pressures so it will vaporize when released. These canisters are not reusable, so when emptied they go right to the landfill (after you have packed them out of course!).

Some manufacturers are starting to introduce methods for recycling, but so far they are not commonly available. There are other problems. As the canister empties, it continuously loses pressure which means a decrease in stove performance: it takes twice as long to boil water with a nearly empty canister than it does with a full one. The cooling effect of the fuel vaporizing compounds this problem, chilling the canister and further reducing the inside pressure. For similar reasons, these stoves are unsuitable for cold weather camping. For example, butane will not vaporize below 0 degrees Celsius; isobutene ceases to vaporize below -10 degrees Celsius.

The exception is propane which, because of the high pressure under which it is stored, will continue to vaporize at -43 degrees Celsius; however, propane must be contained in heavy steel canisters, making them impractical when weight is an issue. In short, the ideal user for one of these stoves is someone who does the majority of his/her camping in the summer months, and uses a mode of transportation where weight is not much of an issue (camper, sailboat, car). These users will find the ease of use, clean burning and flame control to outweigh the disadvantages.

White Gas

Most commonly known in North America as Coleman fuel, white gas is also called Naphtha and now MSR fuel. White gas stoves are probably the most popular type for outdoor enthusiasts for several reasons: the cost of fuel is relatively low, the stoves are very efficient even in colder temperatures, and most models are very lightweight.

Most white gas stoves operate under the same principal: you pour the fuel into a metal container and pressurizing it with a pump thereby forcing it through the jet. You can then either light the stove or you have to prime it (heat the fuel so that it vaporizes before mixing with oxygen) and then light it, depending on the model. While they are extremely practical and effective, white gas stoves tend to have more mechanical failures than other stove types because of the quality of fuel and the number of parts found in the stove. For this reason the field maintainability of the stove may be an issue, especially on longer trips or in places where fires are not an option. With the purchase of a maintenance kit the MSR Whisper Lite stove can be completely re built in the field and is cleaned by simply shacking the burner.


Multi-fuel stoves operate under the same basic principals as white gas stoves, but they burn a wider variety of fuels (i.e. Kerosene, jet fuel, Stoddard solvents, some automobile fuels), making them more practical for travel off the beaten path. The only real issue is the purity of the fuel: the more contaminated the fuel, the more likely it is to clog your stove, making it in operational. For this reason, constant cleaning of the jet is necessary as is filtering the fuel before you use it. Both Peck 1 and MSR make this type of stove however the Peck 1 multi fuel only burns white gas and kerosene. The MSR Whisper lite international and Dragon fly are a much better bet due to the ease of cleaning these stoves can be cleaned by simply shacking the stove.


Alcohol stoves, while not all that common, definitely have some features to recommend them. Because alcohol does not require pressurization to burn, these stoves have very few (if any) moving parts making them extremely reliable. The low volatility of alcohol also makes it a very safe fuel to use.

The downside? Alcohol does not produce a great deal of heat, so cooking times are quite a bit longer than with other fuels. Also, most alcohol burning stoves come with fairly small fuel cups, meaning refills might be necessary to finish cooking a larger meal. To get the most out of a alcohol burning stove, consider a windscreen and well fitted pots mandatory (most alcohol stoves come with their own pot set).

Solid Fuel

These are the stoves that burn small fuel cubes specific to the stove or the type that burn small twigs, pieces of bark or just about any other solid flammable material you can get your hands on. Basically, you place the wood inside the stove chamber and set it alight; a small battery powered fan forces the heat up towards the pot. By controlling the fan speed you can control the heat output. Bulky and useless if you can't find any dry fuel, these stoves also require nearly constant attention to keep the flame going and to make sure the meal you are cooking doesn't burn. However, they do score points for using a fuel which doesn't harm the environment.

Pot Sets

For efficient cooking, a good pot set is just as important as a suitable stove. Pots are usually made of aluminum, stainless steel, enameled steel or a combination of two. Each has its pros and cons.

Aluminum is very light weight and provides fairly even cooking, but dents easily and there is that pesky aluminum being linked to health problems issue in the non coated sets. The MSR Blacklite sets have a non-stick Teflon coating to seal out the effect of the aluminum and aid in cleaning however just like the Teflon pots at home you must look after them.

Stainless steel is much more durable, but it is heavier, more expensive and does not provide as even a cooking surface as the aluminum. It is still the choice for most outdoor people. Enamel is lightweight and cooks evenly, however I think every camper has experienced the chipping and flaking that can seems to happen immediately after the first use. Combinations of materials (stainless steel pots with aluminum coatings, aluminum pots with a more durable enameled coating) try to make the best of all worlds and often succeed. They can be heavy and expensive, but if your a back country gourmet they will provide you with a good cooking experience.

On the other end of the spectrum, if all you need to do is boil water, just about any pot will do the trick; you may as well go for the lightest you can find. One way to increase the efficiency of any pot is to blacken it; this will increase the heat absorption and may make for more even cooking.

Wind screens

Wind screens should be considered a priority no matter what the conditions. Wind screens not only block wind, they also help trap the heat from the stove around the pot speeding up cooking time. Heat exchangers are bulkier than wind screens but trap heat more effectively, reducing cooking time and therefore reducing fuel consumption. This is definitely an advantage on longer trips where the weight of fuel might be a concern. as is filtering the fuel before you use it.



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Updated October 17, 2001

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