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How Do Backpacking Stoves Really Work? Like, in The Wild!

When I began backpacking, I had absolutely no clue how backpacking stoves worked. Because my life depended on it, I figured it out. So, how do backpacking stoves work…is it easy, and can anybody do it?

Backpacking Stoves are like any other stove…Backpacking stoves use convection like your stove at home and require a source of fuel, a burner, and a container for water or food. There are three main types of backpacking stoves: canister, liquid fuel, and alcohol.

So, let’s dive in and learn about the stoves and how to have a successful adventure.

The Basics of Backpacking Stoves

Backpackers know that whether you are exploring your local state park, climbing a fourteener, or going on an extended backcountry trip, a hot drink or meal is a huge pick me up.

While many ultralight hikers choose to go stoveless, they also choose to forgo the comfort and the safety net of instant heat. Thru-hikers have a saying, “go light, go hungry, go home”.

By choosing the right backpacking stove you increase the chances of having a fun and successful trip. But what stove should I get?

Let’s discuss the three go-to stoves for experienced and novice hikers alike. There are canister, liquid fuel, and alcohol stoves.

If you are interested in checking out the best backpacking stoves you can find them by clicking here.

Canister Backpacking Stoves

These days, canister stoves are everywhere on the trail. They run on pressurized fuel, usually a mixture of propane and isobutane. The canister itself acts as a base for your burner.

Here are some examples on Amazon of canister stoves.

If minimalism is your thing

For this reason, canister stoves are fairly minimalistic. They consist of 5 main parts: fold-out arms, a threaded coupling, a burner, a canister, and finally a valve.

  • Fold-out arms: to rest your cookset.
  • Threaded coupling: attaches the stove to the canister.
  • Canister: holds the fuel.
  • Burner: to, yes, heat the food.
  • Valve: to regulate the fuel.

How to use a canister stove

To use a canister stove, first make sure the control valve is completely closed. Hold the stove and canister upright, line up the threads, and quickly spin the canister until tight.

When you are ready to cook, fold out the arms, open the valve slightly, just until you can hear and smell the fuel escaping. Although isobutane is a liquid while under pressure, it will become an invisible gas when released.

After ensuring your hair, sleeping bag, friends, etc. are out of scorching range, light her up! Small holes in the bottom of the burner will draw in cold air to feed the fire. Carefully balance your cookpot on the stove and adjust the flame.

Canister stove safety

Always cook outside of your tent. Not only do you risk inhaling fumes but your friends might decide you’ve earned a new trail name, like “House Fire”, when you burn your tent down. True story.

Also, some believe that cooking inside your tent will help keep it warm. However, this is not worth the risk. There are a number of ways to heat your tent safely.

Affordable, lightweight and easy to use

Canister stoves are affordable, lightweight, and easy to use. The camp cook has the option to simmer low and slow or to bring water to a rapid boil when you need that instant coffee now!

On the downside, these stoves are topheavy and easy to knock over if you use too large of a pot, spilling precious calories. RIP mac and cheese. For this reason, these stoves are best suited for solo or duo hikers.

The canister stove that we recommend

My favorite canister stove is the MSR Pocket Rocket 2. Weighing in at only 2.6 ounces and folding down to 2x2x3 inches, there is no reason not to bring it! I’ve put my 1st generation Pocket Rocket through over 4,000 miles of abuse and it is still going strong!

MSR Pocket Rocket 2 canister camp stove
MSR Pocket Rocket 2

Liquid Fuel Backpacking Stoves

The second most common backcountry stoves utilize liquid fuels, generally white gas, but most will also work with a variety of fuels including kerosene, unleaded gasoline, diesel, or even aircraft fuel. It is best to refer to the manufacturer as to which fuels will work in your stove.

Unlike canister stoves, they do not rest on the fuel container and instead come with their own built-in base. Start by unfolding the base and arms of the stove and place it on a flat surface. A plastic pump fits into the fuel bottle, screw it on tightly and pump until you feel resistance.

Effective in high altitude and cold weather

The manual pressurization makes these stoves more effective in cold weather and high altitudes than other styles. Insert the fuel line that connects the pump to the stove.

Prepare the fuel for use

Since these types of fuel are liquid at room temperature you must vaporize the fuel in the line first. To vaporize the fuel line, you must pre-heat the fuel line. Release a few drops of fuel into the burner below the small pan. Then ignite the fuel.

After this flame has nearly burned out, slowly open the valve to release the now vaporized fuel through the burner for a constant flame.

Most versatile backpacking stoves

Liquid fuel stoves are the most expensive and the heaviest option but offer the most versatility. These stoves accept a wide range of fuels. This is a huge benefit when resupplying in areas with few options, especially overseas.

However, additives in those fuels to the stove requires more maintenance, and therefore, more spare parts to carry on extended backcountry trips.

Like the canister stoves, the ability to control the size of the flame allows for a greater variety of cooking methods.

Great for groups

These stand-alone stoves work great for groups because they are more stable when using larger pots. To offset the increase in stove weight, divide stove parts among the group members.

The liquid fuel stove that we recommend

Made in the USA, MSR Whisperlite stoves are a reliable choice under any condition, making them popular with everyone from high alpine mountaineers to outdoor educators leading groups of teens. They are compact enough to weigh 11.2 ounces, at minimum, but sturdy enough to cook for up to 10 hungry hikers.

MSR Whisperlite Backpacking Stove
MSR Whisperlite Backpacking Stove

Alcohol Backpacking Stoves

Besides canister and white gas stoves, alcohol stoves are becoming more popular because they are inexpensive, can weigh as little as one ounce, and have no moving parts to break. These stoves are so simple that many hikers choose to make their own.

There are many different designs and instructions on how to do this online, but if you’re not the crafty type, there are plenty of commercially available alcohol stoves.

Depending on the style, you may need a pot stand since the stoves are too small to balance cookware on. Alcohol stoves include a chamber for 180 proof alcohol, but most do not store the fuel.

How to use the alcohol stove

Before each use measure and pour the booze into the stove. The amount depends on how long you want it to burn. This takes some experimentation to get right. These stoves are on or off, so you can boil water, but that’s about it.

Because alcohol readily vaporizes it does not require priming when lighting. The components for this stove are easy to find and inexpensive. Also, denatured alcohol is clean-burning, inexpensive, and widely available making it an enticing choice.

Safety concerns, oh my!

Unfortunately, these stoves are easy to kick over, spilling the alcohol and igniting anything it gets on. For this reason, these stoves are not recommended on some trails, such as the PCT, where the risk of wildfire is high.

The alcohol stove that we recommend

Weighing only 1 ounce and priced at less than 20 bucks, the RedCamp Mini Alcohol Stove is a popular choice. According to Amazon reviewers, it is fast too, boiling 16 ounces of water in under 12 minutes in windy conditions.

RedCamp Mini Alcohol Stove, inexpensive backpacking stoves
RedCamp Mini Alcohol Stove

Backpacking Meals

It is a good idea to consider your stove’s best uses when choosing what to cook.

If you opt for a stove that is only ideal for boiling water has its limitations. Boiling water, putting the lid on, and letting sit for 10 minutes is great for homemade or store-bought dehydrated meals. Also, instant rice or refried beans, ramen, oatmeal, or couscous are good options. However, other stoves work better to expand your options.

The ability to control the heat expands your options to foods like pasta, wild or brown rice, lentils, and even biscuits, skillet bread, or sauteed rehydrated veggies, for example.

Remember to practice at home first and get creative, but don’t stress too much- everything tastes better when camping! Now get out there and get cooking!

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