Can you help me pick a new camping stove?
February 16, 2010 12:21 AM   Subscribe

Looking for help picking a new camping stove for backpacking (not car camping)- what do you like about yours? Why would you (or would you not) recommend or not recommend about the one you have? Not really the season, but I've got an overnight snowshoe trip planned at the end of the month...

I am finding it harder and harder to find fuel for my old-school backpacking stove, which I love. It still works, but its now non-standard cartridge PLUS a whole lot of REI gift cards sitting around have convinced me that it is time to make the switch. Help me find a good one.

What I like about the old one:
-instant start, with no priming
-completely, insanely reliable

What I don't like:
-impossible to tell how much fuel you had left
-on the heavier side- we do actually backpack with it a lot
-once you attach the cartridge, you can't detach it until you're done with it

What do you like about the backpacking stove you have used? Is it reliable? Is it a pain in the rear to start? Does it burn like a fiery inferno? We will use it fairly heavily during the summer, but usually get out winter camping a few times in the snow and subzero temperatures and would use it then, too.

I have had bad experiences with fiddly, prime-y stoves, but haven't had to use one in about 10 years- maybe they make them better/more reliable/less likely to end up in a fireball now? We don't do a lot of fancy stuff- lots of boiling something in a packet for a few minutes to heat, then removing the packet and adding minute rice to the water we boiled. Tea/coffee heating. For winter camping here in Alaska, we sometimes do need to melt snow for water if we're out for more than a night.

I guess key points, in order of importance, would be:
-ease of use (would be especially nice not to prime/pump, but if that is a smooth and non-mess-upable process now, I can get over it)

Bonus points if the model is available at REI, so it feels like I'm getting it for free! Thanks for any help or guidance you can provide.
posted by charmedimsure to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (29 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It would help if you identified your old stove.
posted by LarryC at 12:45 AM on February 16, 2010

Best answer: I have something a bit clunkier and fiddly, a bit more campsite-y and much less backpack-y, but a friend of ours has one of these guys that she uses for backpacking, and she swears by it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:57 AM on February 16, 2010

I swear by my Jetboil PCS. Boils 0.5l of water in less than 2 minutes, integrated mug/pot, removable gas canister (their own 4 seasons mix propane/iso butane mix is best for winter) which stows away in mug/pot when not in use. Very light, portable, stable, reliable with small but not fiddly dial to turn on gas and red piezo button to ignite. Just turn, press and you're away. The pot has a fitted neoprene mitt so I've boiled up with the thing in my hand, removed the can and burner, added my dried ingredients and been eating within 5 minutes. It's worked in driving wind and rain and never let me down.

They do other systems if this one is too small for your needs. REI stock 'em too.
posted by theCroft at 1:21 AM on February 16, 2010

Having spent far too much of my life waiting for food to cook on my ancient, but bullet proof, Trangia stove I invested in their multi-fuel attachment which lets the stove run off kerosene or unleaded petrol for example. It is advertised as being particularly good in very cold weather although I have not tested that. I guess your solution will also depend on how elaborate the cooking you are planning to do will be. Here is one being set up if you want to judge the hassle factor.
posted by rongorongo at 2:06 AM on February 16, 2010

Pocket Rocket

Super light and reliable, no priming. You can tell how much fuel you have from the weight of the container or by shaking it. Detach it when not using it.

However the downside is that I always end up with a half full container that I have to lug around.

I usually use one of the msr multi-fuel, if my load can handle the extra weight.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 2:16 AM on February 16, 2010

Seconding the Pocket Rocket!


If there's even a little wind, you're going to need a shield, though. Fortunately, it's easy to make your own shield out of a chunk of heavy-duty aluminum foil. I have never backpacked with anything as good as the Pocket Rocket. It's tiny, and it boils water in a snap. It is foolproof, and the MSR fuel is really easy to find. A single container is great for a weekend trip, and the double-sized container lasts me a week. (I always pack two to be sure, and I never use the second.)
posted by adiabat at 2:35 AM on February 16, 2010

I have an older MSR Whisperlite in which I burn white gas; it can also burn just about any fluid that can sustain combustion. It's a primer- style, but I've used it under adverse conditions and it has proved itself extremely reliable. It's lightweight and relatively cheap; you can service it down to bare bones in the field, and you can carry enough fuel for a 5 day trip in a single bottle. It's not the latest & greatest but it's time-tested and virtually bombproof.
posted by itstheclamsname at 2:55 AM on February 16, 2010

Whisperlite. Always works.
posted by pianomover at 3:04 AM on February 16, 2010

TheCroft beat me to the JetBoil recommendation. Like any cartridge stove, you can't tell how much fuel is left by sight. But it is super light and boils water fast. Not so good for cooking, as in simmering and frying and so on, but unbeatable for producing hot water in a hurry.
posted by Forktine at 3:49 AM on February 16, 2010

I like the metho stoves, in particular the Trangia range. They're quite expensive, but come with their own pots and pans, they're super reliable, and last forever. Also the fuel (methylated spirit) is really easy to get hold of and cheap. Unfortunately I wouldn't recommend the only one of the range available at REI, but the next size up, which will be at least twice the price.

p.s. I use my 10 year old trangia on wood fires wherever possible, but the burner works fine too.
posted by singingfish at 4:13 AM on February 16, 2010

I have the MSR Pocket Rocket and would recommend it, but canister-based stoves are very unreliable in cold weather. Unfortunately, the only reliable alternatives are the fiddly prime-pump stoves you want to avoid. So for winter camping I use the Whisperlite. It's more fiddly than the basically plug-and-play Pocket Rocket, but it's really not bad at all and, more importantly, it always works, even when the temperature is -10 F.

adiabat: Seconding the Pocket Rocket... If there's even a little wind, you're going to need a shield, though...

Don't use a windscreen on a canister stove! If the canister gets too hot -- which it will if you use a windscreen -- you can have a Very Bad Problem.
posted by dseaton at 5:11 AM on February 16, 2010

I used Whisperlites for 5 months straight of backcountry camping & trail work. While they were reliable I had these issues: fuel containers are messy, the stoves MUST have a rigid level surface (to the point that even the slightest slope caused pots to fall off), the flame burns super crazy when they are well used and getting older, and on one occasion I've seen the stove catch fire*and melt all parts needed.

*I wasn't the one using it. The person using it was well trained. Not sure if it was human error or stove error, but it made me leery of ever buying the stove for myself.
posted by Etta Hollis at 5:12 AM on February 16, 2010

Some people are very fond of soda can alcohol stoves. You can purchase a premade version here for cheap.

Advantages: dirt cheap, light, refillable, remaining fuel can be returned to stock container, no priming, and if you believe wikipedia, more reliable in cold climate.
Disadvantages: dirt cheap, uses more fuel, and I imagine it is messy to fill/empty.
posted by plinth at 5:30 AM on February 16, 2010

I've had a whisperlite for a decade and it's always worked. It's dead reliable and a cinch to rebuild on a cold, windy night if need be. That's about all I can say for it. It's dirty, you've always got fuel dripping out of it for a few minutes after use, the flame has three settings (on, off, sputtering) and priming it is always interesting.

Still, I'd probably buy another, since reliable and irritating is a lot better than hungry and cold. :)
posted by paanta at 5:58 AM on February 16, 2010

My MSR Whisperlight has always been reliable. I've used it at -25 F and it fired right up. It is a bit tippy and you're not going to simmer stuff on it but if all you want is something to cook up your ramen, you can't get much simpler. It's easy to repair in the field and any time it's given me any trouble I've been able to get it going after a minute or two of fiddling.

Unless you have a hanging stove, like a Jetboil, you're going to want a small pad for it if you're using it on snow.
posted by bondcliff at 6:07 AM on February 16, 2010

Best answer: I also have the MSR Pocket Rocket mentioned previously, and it's a great cartridge stove. The cartridges are all compatible, reasonably lightweight, and non-fidley. You can determine their approximate fullness by either shaking them, or weighing an empty can on a postage scale and subtracting to determine the weight of fuel remaining.

Iso-butane/propane (what all the canister stoves use) is non-ideal for cold-weather, especially at altitudes above ~8000 feet. You can get some improvement by shaking them occasionally while in use (removing the pot first, of course), but this is only marginal and is expressly described as a bad idea by the manufacturer.

The best option (by far) for cold-weather is a gas stove (white gas/gasoline/kerosene) stove, such as the Whisperlite or the Dragonfly (assuming this model still exists), but it's fidley, heavier, and a bit inconvenient.

Alcohol stoves (whether the soda-can stove plinth mentions) or the Trangia or the Brasslite which I have (and recommend) are an interesting alternative:

They burn methanol or ethanol (available at any hardware store), work decently in cold weather and extremely lightweight (I have a soda-can stove I made and the Brasslite from my ultralight days; the Brasslite is definitely a better performer). The alcohol can be stored in a soft-sided container (e.g. a platypus bottle), making this a great lightweight option, even for longer trips. They're pretty easy to use: you fill it with alcohol (dead simple), pour a bit in the top, and light the top section. The biggest disadvantages of alcohol stoves are (1) they tend to be small, so they're not great for a large amount of cooking, and (2) they are VERY slow. Plan on your water taking twice as long to boil as anything else you've ever used. They're quite quiet, though, unlike the cartridge stoves or the gas stoves, so if you're patient, they're worth considering. The soda-can stove isn't hard/expensive to make, so you can try it out to see if you like it.
posted by JMOZ at 6:10 AM on February 16, 2010

I have an MSR whisperlite international, which I bought for a motorcycle trip because of it's multifuel capabilities -- the plan being to fill the fuel bottle at the gas pump instead of having to tote separate containers of white gas. It does boil water in a jiffy, but burning gasoline creates a lot of soot, making the stove messy to handle, and the jet seems to clog very frequently. Also, no simmer. It's easy enough to disassemble and clean out the works, but I'd definitely try something else next time.
posted by jon1270 at 6:37 AM on February 16, 2010

We have a Jetboil and Pocket Rocket, but have used the Jetboil more. I mostly do Freezer Bag Cooking and just need to get the water hot for that and drinks, so Jetboil is what I go with. I got the Pot Support and Stabilizer accessories so I can use a frying pan or whatever other cooking gear I want to with it and never had a problem with it.

If it's cold, you can keep your canister warm and ready to go by carrying it in an inner jacket pocket during the last hour or so before you get to camp or sleeping with it in your sleeping bag so it's ready to go in the morning. The stove won't be as happy if you put the canister directly on snow, so try to find something less cold to set it on. Here are a few other tips about wind and such.
posted by BlooPen at 7:14 AM on February 16, 2010

If you have the space/weight and need ultra-reliability track down a Brunton Optimus Hiker. There aren't many places they haven't been and they'll run on any liquid fuels, including diesel, kerosene, and high proof vodka if you're willing to run the cleaning needle more often.
posted by jwells at 7:19 AM on February 16, 2010

I really do love my Trangia. It's not small, but it really is a tank, I wouldn't trade it.
posted by Iteki at 7:39 AM on February 16, 2010

I have a whisperlite international, and really like it for out-of-the-way trips and longer slogs. If I were to get a canister stove, it would either be a jetboil or pocket rocket. Great for weekend backpacking trips in above-freezing temps. But, if you're going to do longer trips, high-altitude trips, or trips in areas where it's tough to buy canister fuel, get a white-gas or multi-fuel stove. If your stove is multi-fuel, use white gas where you can (as mentioned above, unleaded is sooty). I've had good luck with the whisperlite, and they last forever.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:12 AM on February 16, 2010

Best answer: For winter use, the MSR Whisperlite / Simmerlite / Dragonfly / etc. are a good bet. They work, they burn hot, and white gas is relatively cheap and energy dense. The Simmerlite is nice because it actually simmers (as opposed to the Whisperlite). The Dragonfly works well, but the noise drives me insane. Neither pumping nor priming are difficult or particularly time consuming (it takes about 30s to set up the stove, 60s to pump and 60s to prime it). For use in the winter, the folding base is pretty much essential.

I would not use an alcohol stove for winter camping (though I'm aware that some people do). Alcohol stoves are very slow and alcohol is not nearly as energy dense as white gas. I happily use my alcohol stove in warm weather, but I would never dream of trying to melt snow with it. At very cold temperatures, it can be difficult to get an alcohol stove going.

Canisters are OK, but performance does get worse in cold temperatures. Melting snow gets wasteful and expensive as you'll go through a lot of canisters.

A comparison of stove types
posted by ssg at 8:40 AM on February 16, 2010

Best answer: The MSR Whisperlite is the only one I would trust my life on for expeditions. Gasoline is the only thing compact enough that you can carry it on your back for two or three weeks and have enough to melt snow for water. The Whisperlite is bombproof and easy to service in the field.

One trick I use is to carry a two-ounce squeeze bottle of denatured alcohol to use for the primer. This keeps the stove pristine clean -- no black soot to get on your hands -- and less likely to misjudge and lead to a flare-up which is important if you are cooking in your vestibule.

The Whisperlite allows you to carry various size bottles depending on the length of the trip, from 11 ounces to 33 ounces. If you need a lot of fuel for a long expedition, 2-liter plastic soft-drink bottles work great.

The one drawback is that the Whisperlite requires constant attention to control low heat for a long simmer.

Canister stoves are really handy for one or two-day trips, but I would never trust them for something serious.
posted by JackFlash at 9:42 AM on February 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

but a friend of ours has one of these guys that she uses for backpacking, and she swears by it

Just to follow up, one reason she loves her Jetboil is that it is very portable, in that all the bits pack into the cup, making a small container. It's lightweight and the fuel canister can be removed.

Basically, it meets all of your criteria, except some kind of marker to tell you how much fuel is left. You could shake the canister, though, to get a rough idea.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:10 AM on February 16, 2010

I'm a whisperlite/shakerlite user myself, I swear swear SWEAR by the thing. 4oz of fuel is enough for a cold 2-3 day trip with 2 people. In about 1997 I switched to the shaker from an old fashioned pump-style squat coleman stove. That's a great bulletproof stove too.

I personally don't like the jetboils because I feel like they're gimmicky. Not getting on anybody's case who uses them...but, you know, sometimes I want more than a mug of hot water. I use my MSR chefkit (really just two nesting teflon pots and a universal lid and a lifter), the shakerlite nests inside, and then elsewhere in the pack I tote along 10 or 12 oz of fuel. I always carry waaaaaaaaay too much fuel because I sort of wish I might get lost sometime. Never do though, but maybe sometime I'll need to boil water for troop of lost vacation bible school kids or something. Anyway, i've used it for everything from hot water to much more complicated and tasty hunting-and-gathering-y type foods. I won't say I can boil X volume of water in X minutes, because sometimes it's 85 and balmy and sometimes it's 5 and windy and wet. It's damn fast though, and I pack light as anything so the ~8oz difference between that and the jetboil means it's a winner for me.

That and a Pur/Katadyn hiker filter and you're set!
posted by TomMelee at 12:20 PM on February 16, 2010

Response by poster: You people rock! Thank you so much- I feel a lot better-informed going in now, and will re-read with my partner in crime this weekend before we head out to the store. We'll definitely be sure to check out the Whisperlite and a few others mentioned here.

Any further comments/ideas are welcome, too.
posted by charmedimsure at 2:09 PM on February 16, 2010

I've got an MSR Dragonfly, and like it a lot. You can buy different sized bottles for the white gas it runs on, so you can decide how much to bring depending on your cooking plans and trip length.

The big selling point of this stove is that the flame is adjustable, so you can simmer things or boil the heck out of them. Even if you're a pretty low-maintenance trail cook (as I am), it's nice to avoid burning the bottom of the Lipton Noodles-N-Sauce without having to stir constantly. You can also take it apart for service if necessary in the field, but I'd definitely recommend practicing a few times before you actually NEED to do it, because it's a bit fussy and extra-frustrating if you thought you'd be eating by now.

The #1 drawback of this stove is that it's NOISY! They call it the Dragonfly because it sounds like one, or maybe like a million of them all buzzing at once. On solo trips I get nervous that a hungry bear might be sneaking up behind me without being heard, and in campgrounds I get a little embarrassed to be disturbing the peace, but with a couple other people it's fine. It's not loud enough to prevent conversation at a normal voice level, just a lot louder than most other things in the wilderness.
posted by vytae at 3:57 PM on February 16, 2010

Don't use a windscreen on a canister stove! If the canister gets too hot -- which it will if you use a windscreen -- you can have a Very Bad Problem.

Eep, thanks, dseaton! I've been using that stove for years with no problems, and I was even sold a windscreen along with it when I bought it! (Thaaaaanks, REI.) But I will stop that immediately.
posted by adiabat at 6:54 PM on February 17, 2010

Response by poster: We ended up just getting a basic Pocket Rocket- cheap, easy, takes whatever kind of canister you want. It worked beautifully and is much lighter/boils much faster than the old one (which is the kind that punctures a Camping Gaz canister). If we end up doing something where it looked like it would be cold enough that the fuel even in canisters kept near our bodies would gel, I think we'd probably be brave and try the Whisperlite, especially now that I know JackFlash's denatured alcohol trick.

Thanks, everyone!
posted by charmedimsure at 4:35 PM on March 8, 2010

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