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Backpacking Stove Safety

George Cooking Dinner-in the Catskills
George Cooking Dinner in the Catskills

Backpacking stoves can greatly increase your comfort and safety on multi-day trips and in challenging weather conditions. There’s nothing like hot food at dinner to warm you up after hiking in the rain all day or hot coffee after sleeping in a shelter after a cold night.

However, backpacking stoves can also be very dangerous if used carelessly. Here are a few guidelines to keep you safe and your tummy happy.

  1. Most backpacking tents are highly flammable and cooking inside them or near them should be avoided.
    • Bring along food than can be eaten without cooking for periods of heavy rain or snow. One spark and you could quickly become a crispy critter or lose your shelter.
    • If it is raining or snowing and you must use your stove to get warm, try using your tent’s rain fly or your tent footprint as a tarp and suspend it well away from your stove.
  2. If you are using a fuel like isobutane, be careful how much gas you let out before you light your stove. Too much gas can cause a big flame-up and could burn you or set your clothes on fire.
    • Be very careful if your stove has a built in piezo sparker because your hand will be closer to the gas explosion.
  3. Do not cook without adequate ventilation. Backpacking stoves generate carbon monoxide and if you cook in your tent you risk death by asphyxiation.
  4. Bears and other scavengers are attracted by the smell of food. Avoid storing food or cooking in or near your tent. Otherwise, you could have a very unwelcome visitor at night.
  5. Only use a backpacking 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
  6. 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.
  7. Let your stove cool after use and before you put it away. Otherwise you can burn yourself.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. Be very careful when lighting a stove while wearing gloves since you will have less dexterity than normal.

Be safe.

Written 2008. Updated 2015.

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  1. I once used my Pocket Rocket to light a camp fire. :p

  2. Appalachian Swede

    I’m scared to use a stove now!

  3. I’ve met hikers on the trail who are now carrying a little aluminum portable table who If I remember correctly bought them from Sno-Peak. I have also seen homemade little wood tables with small folding legs the size of a paperback novel..I once carried a thin piece of a flat rock for two days in the Sandy desert to have a stable platform to place the stove on..and of course as I have posted many times here, I carry an MRE Entrée or two and the heaters needed for those rainy day stuck in the tent hot meals. Again some great advice from Phil…thanks for sharing…

  4. God save me from ever hoping my Jetboil will keep me warm!

  5. My butane stove has a piezo sparker and it burns the hair off of my knuckles every time I light it!

  6. Right after I got my Dragonfly white gas stove I spilled quite a bit of gas trying to remove the pump and install the canister cap. Only reason I tried to remove the pump was somebody told me it is a bad idea to leave the pump in the canister. Is it a bad idea to leave the pump in the canister?

    • If the valve opens when you carry it, it will cover All of your gear and food with gas. The pump is also made of plastic and easy to break. Best removed and stored separately.

  7. All types of stove produce CO, but the combustion products of Esbit are especially nasty. Wikipedia: “Esbit’s Material Safety Data Sheet states combustion can create formaldehyde, ammonia, nitrogen oxide, hydrogen cyanide and ingestion may cause nausea, vomiting, gastrointestinal disturbances, and kidney damage.”

  8. Years ago, I had a white gas Coleman PeakOne stove that got renamed the NukeOne after a legendary conflagration that involved toasted buns not of the wheat variety.

    Another safety item on the trail is hot liquids. On my grandson’s first backpacking trip at age four, I prepared some hot chocolate for him and put it into his bottle. Before I could warn him it was hot, he chugalugged the drink. He remembers the scalded tonsils to this day, seven and a half years later. I felt awful and I don’t know who cried more that evening after the incident, him or me.

    I also learned about hoses and connections when trying to heat a pop up trailer with a brand new propane heater on the chilly morning of January 1, 2000 in Big Bend National Park. I was wondering how long that thing would take to warm up the trailer and I soon found out. As I was preparing to light it, I noticed a red tag, “Be sure to check all hoses and connections…” and thought, “Yeah, yeah, those lawyers!” and ignited the heater. There where some loose connections and a massive fireball erupted around my legs. I reached over to turn off the knob on the large propane tank and it broke off in my hand. I was debating bailing out and letting the pop up burn to the ground but decided on one last attempt to turn the valve with my Leatherman and managed to do so, just as my wife was about to dump a bucket of water on me. I had to stay down wind of all hikers on my ensuing journey to South Rim in the Chisos Mountains for I smelled like a scorched skunk all day. By the way, I estimated it took 2.73 seconds to warm the pop up that morning.

  9. Brendan McNally

    Cooking from inside your tent can be awfully tempting in bad weather. this article is a great reminder that that is a very dangerous practice.

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