I remember as a child, with fond memories, many camping trips where we cooked our evening meal over a bed of hot coals while camping beneath the stars. The smell, heat and crackle of the fire seemed to take me away from civilisation and had soothing effect on me. Then came the advent of fire restrictions along with increased environmental awareness and with them, the portable gas stove.
This seemed to impact heavily on my camping experience and the ambience created by the open fire as I was no longer able to collect firewood, build an awesome fire and sit, staring into the dancing flames as they warmed everyone around the camp site. It just wasn’t the same as staring at the blue flame of a gas stove. Although they do offer a much cleaner, more efficient and more environmentally conscious solution to boiling water or cooking your evening meal.
Purchasing your hiking stove can present its challenges. There are so many options available that anyone can be excused for being confused. Before making a purchase it is important that you first consider where you will be hiking (temperatures), the types of hikes you will be doing and the style of meals you want to prepare. It is also important to consider how many people you will be preparing for and what fuel sources are available in the area you plan to hike. (example: you might have a gas stove but are flying to a country or region where gas canisters are not available).
Shape, size and design
All you need to do if walk into any hiking or outdoor adventure store to know that hiking stoves come in a wide range of shapes, sizes and designs. There are lightweight, highly portable micro-stoves that you can carry in your pocket to more complex two plate stoves that would fill your entire pack. Once you have determined the size of your group the size decision will become a lot clearer. If you are travelling in a large group I would personally recommend purchasing multiple stoves so that you have one for every 3-4 people. It will be a lot easier to pack and a lot easier to accommodate varying culinary tastes.
It is important to look at stove design from four functional aspects; reliability, usability, weight and space restrictions.
- How large is the stove? How many separate parts does it have? How easy is it to pack and store?
- How easy is the stove to assemble? Does it require assembly every time it is used? If so, is the assembly easy or complex?
- Is the stove sturdy? Is it stable on uneven ground? How hard is it to balance a pot on top? How durable will its parts be when being transported?
- If a gas canister is used, is it easy to attach and remove? Can it be detached before it is completely empty? How much gas per minute does it consume?
- How easy is the stove to light? Does it require priming? Does it have a piezo ignition or require an ignition source? Can it be primed with fuel from the stove itself?
- How easy is the stove to control? Can the heat output be adjusted easily? How easy is the stove to maintain in the field?
When planning to transport stoves in your pack you should also consider
- If the stove can be quickly and easily disconnected from its fuel supply
- If the stove can be disconnected from its external fuel supply for easier storage in your pack and less chance of breakage
- How well the stove collapses. The legs, base supports and pot-holder arms of many hiking stoves can be collapsed or folded for easier packing
- Whether it can fit inside your cookware. Some stoves are designed to fit inside popular cook sets. This is great as it allows you to keep your stove neatly packed together whilst offering an additional layer of protection from damage, dirt and fibres.
How stoves work
Most hiking stoves are fairly simply in terms of components. They will generally have two main parts; a fuel canister and a burner which can be combined in a single piece or connected by a short fuel line.
Gas stoves work just like a little propane tank or blowtorch. You screw your stove to your gas canister which holds the gas under pressure. On opening the valve, the liquid in the canister will vaporise as it escapes through small holes (jets) in the burner. Lighting the out-flowing gas, as it mixes with oxygen, produces a flame. You control the size of the flame by letting more or less gas escape.
Liquid stoves work more like a small engine. Liquid fuel is drawn out of a tank and pushed through a carburettor, which sprays the liquid into a gas toward the flame. First you connect the tank to the stove, then you pump the tank to create internal pressure. Open the valve to let the liquid fuel trickle out. The liquid will pass through the cold carburettor and squirt out like a fountain. When you light the liquid fuel, the entire apparatus heats up. This heat creates a suction, drawing more fuel out of the tank. Once the carburettor heats up, the liquid squirt will become a spray and you’ll start to hear a hiss. At this point, the fireball of burning liquid fuel will become more like the flame of a blowtorch. Then you adjust the valve up and down to control the size of the flame.
In the case of gas stoves, heat isn’t required to initiate this process as the fuel is already a vapour form by the time it leaves the canister.
Where the stove is being used
Where you intend on using your stove is an equally important consideration as the environment can have a substantial impact on both reliability and performance.
At higher altitudes, the surrounding air is less dense than at lower elevations, thereby limiting the oxygen available to the stove for combustion. This results in lower boiling temperatures and increased boiling times. The same rule applies when the external temperature decreases as pressure varies directly with temperature. With gas stoves, the gas condenses, lowering the internal pressure to the point where the gas doesn’t want to come out. Liquid stoves work well in all weather as you have control over the internal pressure, making them a true four-season stove.
Another factor affecting stove performance is wind. Wind can decrease a stove’s performance to an enormous extent depending on the specific conditions. The use of wind screens and heat exchangers and heat reflectors can contribute to decreasing the effects of wind on stove performance.
Selecting the correct fuel source for your stove is one of the essential considerations. Take the time to determine which one will work best for you and the hikes you are going to undertake as this will help create a short-list from the available options.
The generic name for the most common fuels are butane, isobutane and propane. The stoves that utilise these fuels are, in my opinion, the easiest to use and certainly require the least maintenance. The fuel is contained, in liquid form, inside pressurised canisters. These are available in most parts of the industrialised worlds but may be impossible to find in some places so do your research as part of your hike plan.
Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG)
- An excellent option for shorter trips where you don’t have to worry about running out of fuel
- Convenient, clean burning and easy to ignite
- Burn hot immediately, cook food quickly
- Can be adjusted easily for simmering (on most stoves)
- Do not require priming
- Cannot be spilt
- LPG stoves are also much less susceptible to wind because the gas inside them is released under pressure.
- More expensive than other fuel types
- You must carry and dispose of the fuel canisters
- Performance may decrease in temperatures below freezing and at altitude
- Fuel may not always be readily available
As mentioned earlier, LPG stoves will be more greatly affected by temperature and altitude than other fuel type stoves because you have no control over the internal pressure of the gas. Liquid butane vaporises in its canister, creating the pressure that pushes it through the fuel line. As the temperature drops outside, the pressure inside the canister also decreases. At sea level, normal butane stops vaporising at zero degrees. Butane/Propane and isobutane work to a much lower temperatures depending on the blend (ratio of butane to propane). As a result, they produce a more powerful flame at lower temperatures than other canister fuels. However, as this fuel vaporises, it cools its canister, and this evaporative cooling can reduce stove performance. To counteract this, you can:
- Warm up your canister before attaching it to your stove by either storing it in your sleeping bag overnight, keeping it in your insulated jacket or warm it in your hands or stand the canister upright in 3-5cm of water
- Warm up at least two canisters, so that as one canister starts to chill and fade during use, you can swap it for a warm one and keep on cooking
- Placing a non-flammable barrier underneath your canister will keep it up off the cold earth and a little warmer while you’re cooking
- Insulate the canister from the ground
- Turn it down a notch
My recommendation: Take gas stoves out on hikes in summer, spring and autumn and bank on their ease of use. Take an alternate liquid stove on winter hikes and bank on preparedness.
Liquid Gas and Multi-Fuel Stoves
(White Gas, Unleaded petrol, aviation fuel, solvent etc.)
Liquid gas stoves are possibly one of the most popular types of stoves around. They are the proven workhorses of domestic and international wilderness cooking and will perform equally well in every season of the year. The set-up is generally characterised by a fuel bottle with an integrated pump that connects remotely to a freestanding stove body via a fuel line. Unlike canister stove systems, this set-up requires some experience and a little practice to properly operate, and it requires occasional maintenance to ensure maximum performance. Although not as user-friendly or lightweight as a canister system, liquid gas stoves provide certain advantages to the remote wilderness hiker where other systems fall short.
Liquid gas stoves typically run on white gas which is also sold as Coleman fuel, camp fuel, naphtha, or lighter fuel and can be found in most outdoor stores, some service stations and hardware stores in Australia, New Zealand and North America. The scarcity of white gas in other parts of the world makes the multi-fuel option of these types of stoves a more important consideration.
Multi-fuel stoves add even more versatility to liquid fuel systems. As the name implies, multi-fuel stoves have the ability to run on a variety of liquid fuels. Many models can burn white gas, kerosene, diesel, unleaded gasoline, aviation fuel, and the list goes on. It’s because of this incredible versatility that multi-fuel stoves are the preferred choice for international trips and extremely remote areas where a canister or white gas is hard to come by. Before running your stove on a fuel other than white gas, make sure the stove is properly jetted for the fuel you plan on using. Many models require you to first install the appropriate fuel adapter and jet before using certain fuels. While multi-fuel systems provide a range of fuel options, not all fuels provide an equal level of performance.
Generally, the use of fuels like automotive and aviation fuel, kerosene and the like are not recommended because the additives placed in some of these products, which can result in very dirty burns. This can not only release toxic fumes, but also leave a substantial amount of residue in fuel lines, your hiking gear and tents. These types of stoves are easy to operate and maintain, and are generally considered quite reliable. However, because of the volatility of the fuel, their use may not be suitable in all environments.
Unlike canister stoves which can be rendered useless by freezing temperatures, liquid gas systems are unaffected by winter weather, mainly because the pump allows you to create your own pressure and compensate for lower temperatures. The performance of a canister stove will also decrease as the amount of the gas in the canister drops. Once again, because you create your own pressure with a liquid fuel stove, you can maintain consistent performance throughout the entire fuel bottle.
- Inexpensive, easy to find throughout most industrialised countries
- Clean, easy to light
- Spilled fuel evaporates quickly
- Volatile (spilled fuel can ignite quickly)
- Priming is required (fuel from the stove can be used)
- Can be hard to find in some countries
Unleaded petrol, Aviation fuel, Solvent
- Very inexpensive, easy to find throughout the world
- Burns dirty/sooty
- Extremely volatile
These stoves are great overall performers and are perfect for travel around the world (including remote regions if you have a multi fuel option). They are suitable in almost all weather conditions and are generally reliable, inexpensive and efficient.
Methylated spirits, Denatured Alcohol and yellow Heet
Although not as powerful as a canister or liquid gas stove, alternative systems are quickly gaining popularity with the ultralight and minimalist hiking crowd. Methyl, denatured alcohol and yellow heet (a gas line anti-freeze, which is available at most petrol stations and auto parts stores) are extremely light and cheap. Fuel is widely available in most parts of the world. These are the only fuel types that do not require pressure for stove operation. Unfortunately, methyl alcohol does not burn at very high temperature and will produce about half the amount of heat as the same weight in gasoline or kerosene so it is not a very efficient fuel type to use.
- A renewable fuel resource available in most part of the world
- Low volatility
- Burns almost silently
- Alcohol-burning stoves tend to have fewer moving parts than other types, lowering the chance of breakdown.
- Will quickly evaporate if spilled
- No residual odour
- Fuel can be hard to find in many countries
- Lower heat output
- Longer cook times (7-10 minutes to boil water)
- Inability to raise or lower the heat output, making it difficult to do much cooking beyond boiling water.
While you can purchase an alcohol stove, most advocates prefer to build their own out of used drink cans, and DIY tutorials are widely available on the Internet. Unlike white gas, alcohol will quickly evaporate if spilled in your pack and won’t leave any residual odour. These stoves offer an environmentally sensitive option for hikers who enjoy the quiet of these slow burning stoves and are not pushed for time on their travels.
Although kerosene is widely available, there is a noticeable odour when the stove is running and it doesn’t burn quite as hot as white gas, resulting in longer cook times. Kerosene is also slow to evaporate, which creates a greater fire hazard if it’s inadvertently spilled. Kerosene stoves also require the use of white gas, alcohol or priming paste as a separate priming agent in order to facilitate vaporisation.
- Easy to source in most areas of the world
- High heat output (although not as hot as white gas)
- Spilled fuel does not ignite easily
- Can be used in many of the multi-fuel stoves
- Somewhat messy (burns dirty, smelly)
- Increased fire hazard due to evaporation
- Priming is required (best if different priming fuel is used)
- Kerosene tends to gum up stove parts so more maintenance is required
- Longer cook times (than using white gas)
- Spilled fuel evaporates slowly.
Kerosene stoves offer a cheap and versatile fuel option for hikers that plan on travelling off the beaten track in less developed countries.
Priming is the process of igniting a small amount of stove fuel (or other flammable substance) at the base of the burner unit to warm up the fuel’s path before the stove is lit. This process heats up the burner, the fuel line and the generator so that when the stove is first turned on, liquid fuel will come out of the jet already vaporised for easy lighting. It operates much the same was as a diesel engines glow plugs.
Priming is not necessary for stoves that use compressed gas fuels as the fuel is already has already vaporised into a gas when it reaches the burner. Some regular stove fuels (like white gas) can be used both for priming and regular stove operation. Others (like unleaded gas or kerosene) do not work well for priming. If you have trouble using your regular fuel for priming, carry a small container of priming paste or alcohol to use instead.
There are so many fuel types and stove types available that it would be impossible to detail them all here. One of the best ways to compare performance is to review instore comparison charts or research any available stove literature online. Some of the more telling statistics, some of which will assist in understanding how much fuel you need to carry, are;
- Average boiling time – This measures how hot the stove burns
- Water boiled per unit of fuel – This measures how efficient the stove is and is a good indication of how much fuel you will use
- Burn time at maximum flame – This measures how long the stove will burn on a given supply of fuel before it has to be refilled.
- Weight, shape and size
Use and performance tips
- If your cook pot is larger than 2 litres or you often cook on uneven surfaces, buy a stove with wide pot supports and legs that provide a stable base
- Always cover the pot with a tight fitting lid. Covering foods during cooking will help hold in moisture, reduce your fuel consumption and time-to-boil. Don’t bother boiling the water completely, unless you are treating it. You can’t drink boiling water anyway
- Let pasta and rice soak. Boil for a few minutes then switch off your stove and let it soak with the lid on
- If you camp only in temperatures above freezing, choose a canister stove for faster cooking, maximum heat control, convenience, and ease of use.
- When you travel by plane to your hiking destinations, you have to buy fuel there or ship fuel canister separately. Some types are hard to find at local gear stores, but white gas is widely available in Australia
- Keep it light. Long-distance hikers should consider a liquid-fuel stove because of the fuel’s weight savings and storage flexibility. This will all depend on your stoves consumption and how often you plan on using it
- Overseas travellers should invest in a multi-fuel stove that burns kerosene and unleaded petrol for increased versatility. Use a coffee filter or old t-shirt to filter all of your liquid fuel before use
- If you cook in freezing temperatures, buy a liquid-fuel stove, preferably one with controls that are easily manipulated while wearing gloves or mittens. It is worth noting that a lot of the canisters available on the market now use a blend to allow use below freezing
- Pre-soak Longer Cooking Foods in Water First
- Your cook pot size matters. Use a pot that is similar in size or slightly wider than the width of your backpacking stove. A tall and narrow pot may result in the flame spilling over the sides of the pot which will waste fuel. Broad bottomed, shallow cooking pots tend to be the most energy efficient
- Stir the food thoroughly before simmering or soaking
- The wind can blow the flame sideways and waste fuel. Maximize the thermal efficiency of your stove by enclosing it with a metallic shield, typically made from firm aluminium and fold-up for storage
- A good insulator can mean the difference between a hot meal and a warm meal, which is especially useful during winter. If the air is cold, add an insulator (cosy) around the pot to keep the food hot while it is soaking. If you cook on snow, get a base that fits your stove, or use an old metal plate. You can also use the sun or body heat to partially melt snow (rather than your stove) and a heat exchanger will improve fuel economy
- Insulate your fuel canister from the ground, especially in cold climates
- Use alcohol for priming (this will help keep your stove soot-free).
- Learn how to clean and maintain your stove properly and practice by taking your stove apart at home
- Read all user and instruction manuals before use
- Give your stove a few dry runs at home before you head out on the trail. This will ensure that it works and that you know how to use it. It is also a good way to taste test some of the food you intend to eat
- Most hiking tents are highly flammable and cooking inside them or near them should be avoided
- Do not cook without adequate ventilation. Backpacking stoves generate carbon monoxide and if you cook in your tent you risk death by asphyxiation
- Only use a hiking stove on a level surface to avoid spilling liquid fuel on the surrounding area or yourself, and to avoid having your food fall on the ground and possibly burn you
- Be very careful if you are cooking while it is still daylight. The flames generated by certain fuels, particularly denatured alcohol, are very difficult to see in daylight and you can easily burn yourself or catch you clothes on fire if you are careless
- Let your stove cool after use and before you put it away. Otherwise you can burn yourself
- Avoid leaving your stove fuel in full sun because it could explode or expand into gas and become dangerous if you open it near an open flame or spark
- Carefully inspect all of the hoses on your stove (if it has them) to make sure that they are in good condition. If not replace or repair them
- Check the stove for leaks before use
- Be very careful when lighting a stove while wearing gloves since you will have less dexterity than normal
- Carry fuel in only the manufacturer’s recommended containers
- Never open the fuel bottle or stove tank when the stove is in operation
- Regularly maintain your stove