Gear Guy

What’s the best backcountry stove?

Up until now, I've been content with either picking a wilderness that allows backcountry campfires for cooking dinner, or eating cold food for the duration. Now I'm starting to feel like my choices are limited and/or my dinner sucks. What kind of backcountry stove should I be looking into, and what is the difference between the different fuels? For the stove, my most important prerequisites are that it's lightweight and reliable. Mark Brick, New Jersey

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Most backcountry stoves today use liquid gas (white gas, kerosene, auto gas) or canister-based fuel (usually butane/propane). In terms of heat output, both stove types are comparable at sea level and in mild conditions. Liquid-fuel stoves are more economical, burn better at high elevations (the exception is pure propane, which is rarely used anymore) and in cold temperatures (i.e., below 20 degrees), and are more easily re-supplied worldwide (usually with kerosene). On the other hand, pressurized canister fuels are much more convenient, probably safer (no fuel to spill and ignite), and tend to allow the stove to simmer better.

There is a third category of stove, a series of “unpressurized” stoves. Alcohol stoves are one such type. They’re very easy to use, simple, and light. But they don’t put out a ton of heat, so are poor in windy conditions or very cold temperatures. Lots of folks swear by them, though. Next come wood stoves, using small bits of wood and a battery-powered fan. They work well if a decent supply of dry material is available, but I’m suspicious of the durability of the fan mechanism, a moving part the likes of which gas stoves don’t have.

For most people in most conditions, myself included, a canister stove works the best. MSR’s Pocket Rocket ($40) is an excellent lightweight stove of this type. Coleman’s Xpert ($55) has excellent stability and cold-weather burn characteristics, but is slightly heavy and bulky and uses proprietary fuel canisters (most other canister fuels use a “universal” threaded fitting). If liquid fuel sounds appealing, the ol’ standby is the MSR WhisperLite ($60). The Optimus Nova ($130) burns anything liquid, simmers well, and is exceptionally easy to use. But it’s costly.

For you, I’d recommend the Pocket Rocket. The Trangia Westwind alcohol stove ($20) might be the ticket, too, seeing as you obviously are used to going without a stove. It’s enough to warm a meal or cup of coffee for you.

More information: MSR Pocket Rocket; MSR WhisperLite; Coleman Xpert; Optimus Nova; Trangia stoves.