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How Do Backpacking Stoves Work?

When I began backpacking, I had absolutely no clue how backpacking stoves worked. But because my life depended on it, I figured it out. For the beginner backpacker, it’s an important piece of equipment, so all backpackers should learn how backpacking stoves work as soon as they can.

Backpacking stoves work using 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, and these are canister, liquid fuel, and alcohol, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

As backpacking stoves are pretty much essential for longer trips, learning how to use one is key for all backpackers. But they’re also great for shorter trips too, so below we’ll go through the basics of backpacking stoves, and how you can choose the right one for your next backpacking trip.

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 stove-less, they also choose to forgo the comfort and the safety net of instant heat. Thru-hikers have the 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 it’s important to know which stove is right for you.

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. For this reason, canister stoves are fairly minimalistic.

Canister stoves consist of 5 main parts:

  1. Fold-out arms to rest your cook set
  2. Threaded coupling to attach the stove to the canister
  3. Canister to hold the fuel
  4. Burner to heat the food
  5. 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 spin the canister until tight.

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

After ensuring your hair, sleeping bag, and friends are out of scorching range, you now need to light the fuel. 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 as you need to.

Canister Stove Safety

Always cook outside of your tent. Not only do you risk inhaling fumes, but you run the risk of causing a fire too. As with all of these backpacking stoves, be careful not to knock it over.

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

The Best Option

My favorite canister stove is the MSR Pocket Rocket 2. Weighing in at just 2.6 ounces and folding down to 2x2x3 inches, it’s ideal for those travelling light. I’ve put my 1st generation Pocket Rocket through more than 4,000 miles of abuse and it is still going strong!

Liquid Fuel Backpacking Stoves

The second most common backpacking 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’s guidelines as to which fuels will work in your stove.

How To Use A Liquid Fuel 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. Insert the fuel line that connects the pump to the stove.

Since these types of camp 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.

Effective At High Altitude And In Cold Weather

The manual pressurization makes these stoves more effective in cold weather and high altitudes than other styles.

Very Versatile

Liquid fuel stoves are the most expensive and the heaviest option, but they 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 some fuels can lead to your stove requiring 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 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 Best Option

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, but sturdy enough to cook for up to 10 hungry hikers.

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 even choose to make their own (be careful!).

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 An Alcohol Stove

Before each use, measure and pour the alcohol 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

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

The Best Option

Weighing only 1 ounce and priced at less than 20 bucks, the RedCamp Mini Alcohol Stove is a popular choice. It’s fairly fast too given its size, supposedly boiling 16 ounces of water in under 12 minutes in windy conditions.

What You Can Cook With A Backpacking Stove

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, it obviously has its limitations. But boiling water is great for homemade or store-bought dehydrated meals. Also, instant rice, refried beans, ramen, oatmeal, and couscous are good options too.

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. It’s best to practice at home first, so you understand the capabilities of your backpacking stove before you set off.

Final Thoughts

Backpacking stoves work in a similar way to your home oven. They require a fuel source, a burner, and a container to hold food or water. Backpacking stoves can either be canister, liquid fuel, or alcohol based, and they each have their own pros and cons, depending on the situation.