Your old stove can’t hold a candle to these cookers
With dusk introducing a raw chill to my third straight day of wind-driven rain on Vermont’s Long Trail, I ducked into a lean-to and peeled off my waterlogged clothes. Even with dry layers on, I began to quake with uncontrollable shivers. All alone, miles from a road, I thought about a big word — hypothermia — and dug out my stove. Twenty minutes later, with my belly full of warm food and drink, the rain drumming on my corrugated tin roof suddenly seemed rather soothing.
Like a good sleeping bag or parka, your stove can carry you over that threshold from wilderness crisis to comfort. Yet it’s one critical piece of equipment we often take for granted. While we update our backcountry accoutrements with all manner of modern, high-performance gear, we remain content with our battered but functional old burner and expect it to last forever. And maybe it will. But is your tent canvas? Would you climb with a hemp rope? Does all of your warm clothing come from a sheep?
Comparing stoves from even five years ago with today’s high-tech cookers conjures analogies to advances in bikes or computers. Modern stoves often self-clean — if they require any cleaning at all — shrug off Mother Nature’s worst moods, and outshine their ancestors in every measure from simmering to simplicity of operation.
Choosing among these backcountry sophisticates requires first that you know your fuels. To a large extent, selecting a stove means choosing between butane or similar, blended fuels that come in disposable cartridges, and white gas, which often involves attaching a separate fuel bottle to the stove. Your decision will affect when and where you can use your stove, and where you can find the fuel to keep it roaring.
Butane stoves — or, more precisely, stoves that use a butane-propane blend — are simple to the point of being dummyproof. They often have just two components (a burner head and a fuel cartridge), so they are lightweight, compact, and need no maintenance: Just connect burner to canister, open a valve, and light. All the butane stoves reviewed here have fuel cartridges that can be detached, then reattached when you want to cook again, making them easier to stow in a pack. Some models even let you pop a lantern head onto the same cartridge with which you just cooked your gruel, so you can see what you’re eating. The other advantage of butane stoves is superior simmering capability compared with white-gas models because, to oversimplify, butane reaches the burner head in a more uniform flow than liquid fuels.
Some weaknesses emerge in subfreezing weather. Pure butane won’t vaporize when it’s colder than 31 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning the liquid fuel under pressure in the fuel cartridge will not turn to gas and pass through the burner. That’s why most of these stoves use a butane-propane blend, which burns at 20 degrees, or isobutane, which burns at 12 degrees. But even these perform only so-so in the cold.
Butane entails some other compromises: It’s no match for white gas in terms of sheer heat output, and its flame is flimsy in a breeze. Also, output diminishes as the fuel is consumed because the pressure that forces fuel through the burner decreases. And though butane stoves are usually more affordable and their fuel is available worldwide, butane is more expensive than gas. Recent innovations in stove design and fuel blends, however, promise improved performance in the cold and when the fuel level is low — read on.
White gas: a power trip
White-gas stoves are heavier and more expensive than most of their butane brethren. For heat output, though, there’s really no contest. The stronger white-gas flame cooks faster, is relatively oblivious to wind, and white gas doesn’t care what the thermometer says — although some stoves hold up better than others in a deep freeze. But all of that high-BTU power has its downside. Some macho white-gas cookers can’t simmer, and even those that do can’t compare with butane stoves in this department. If you aren’t watching carefully, your risotto may exceed the FDA’s recommended daily allowance for carbon.
White gas, as in the familiar Coleman brand found throughout the United States and Canada, is petroleum naphtha, a pure distillation of crude oil with few additives. It burns more cleanly than other petroleum products like kerosene or unleaded automotive gasoline, meaning it won’t immediately clog your stove. But if you travel in the Third World, you’ll need a multifuel stove that will also burn auto gas, kerosene, aviation fuel, or whatever’s available. These “dirtier” fuels tend to gunk up the stoveworks more quickly.
White-gas stoves do require some fussing over. Most need a bit of simple assembly, as well as pumping or priming to pressurize the fuel. This can take a few minutes and may result in flare-ups — from too much fuel released during priming — until you master the art. You also must periodically clean some white-gas stoves , as jets and fuel lines ultimately clog. Neglect the ablutions, and the stove will choke, sputter, and perhaps die — probably at just the wrong time.
Manufacturers generally supply stats like burn and boiling times with their stoves. Burn time is how long it takes to expend a full bottle or cartridge of fuel at high power; boiling time predicts how fast a stove will bring a quart of water to a boil in windless, warm conditions at sea level. Take those figures with a handful of salt — the numbers can be highly optimistic, and all sorts of variables — ambient temperature, wind, and your campsite’s elevation — will determine a stove’s real-world performance. But be sure of this: In the modern world of outdoor adventure, you want the best that technology can offer; the stoves reviewed here represent CAMPING GEARSs new frontier.
What to look for
- A sensitive flame-control knob allows easy simmering, but heat output might be more important.
- Separate fuel canister simplifies packing.
- A jet that cleans itself keeps the fuel flowing.
- Wind protection can be built in, or come as a wraparound foil piece.
- With low center of gravity and legs to stand on, everything stays steady.
What do singed eyebrows, an empty stomach, and a bruised ego have in common? All are side effects of woeful stove neglect. Heed these tips and you can keep your cooker cooking well past its priming.
Butane and Blended-Fuel Stoves
Keep it steady. These stoves require virtually no cleaning or maintenance, but they can flare up when a little liquid gas mixes with the vaporized stuff being burned. Don’t shake the stove before you light it and don’t move it for a few minutes afterward.
Thwart the cold. In freezing weather, condensation droplets may appear on the fuel cartridge. As they cool, so does the fuel — and the flame diminishes. Prevent this by warming the cartridge with your hands or standing it in a pot in an inch or so of cool (never hot) water. Or keep a spare cartridge in a warm place (like a jacket pocket or the bottom of a sleeping bag); if the cartridge in use gets cold, you can easily turn off the stove, swap cartridges, and be cooking with a fresh horse in seconds.
Cleaner is better. These sled dogs need an occasional bath. Maintenance kits are available for most models; it’s wise to carry one. The MSR and Optimus stoves have a built-in needle that cleans the jet simply by giving the stove a flip, but you may have to occasionally unscrew and remove the jet (especially after using a dirtier fuel in a multifuel stove), soak it in a little white gas, and wipe it clean. Do the same with the fuel line, which on an MSR is disassembled with a tool from the maintenance kit.
Freshen your fuel. White gas breaks down after only a few months, and the resulting impurities can cause clogging. Dump the old stuff and clean the fuel tank or bottle by rinsing out with fresh fuel.
Keep the pump oiled. If it won’t hold pressure, or if it leaks fuel, its rubber O-ring (seal) may be dry and need replacing.
You can control flare-ups. Reduce the flame until a normal, blue flame appears. If that doesn’t work, you probably overprimed — turn the stove off until the excess fuel burns away and the yellow flame is just barely licking above the burner, then slowly give it the gas.