How to Choose a Backpacking Stove and Pot

Trail Designs Caldera Cone Alcohol Stove

Trail Designs Caldera Cone Alcohol Stove

A lot of backpackers own multiple pots, stoves, and windscreens, because like other backpacking gear, there’s often no perfect combination of components that will fit all of your needs.

Here are some factors that you should weigh when selecting the components of your own stove system.

  • Do you plan to hike outside of the USA?
  • Do you need to cook in temperatures under 20 degrees?
  • Do you need to melt snow?
  • Do you hike at higher elevations?
  • Do you just need to boil water or do you like to cook complete meals?
  • How long are your trips?
  • How often can you resupply in towns?
  • How many people are you cooking for?
  • How windy is it where you’re going?
  • Does a sooty pot bother you?
  • Are you trying to shave every extra gram of weight out of your backpack?
  • Are you trying to assemble a very compact cooking system that take up minimal space?
  • How fast do you want your water to boil/cook?
  • How much are you willing to spend?
  • Do you only want one stove or are you willing to own a few?

Let me take a few example scenarios from my own experience and apply these questions to them:

Section Hiking the Appalachian Trail

I typically Section Hike the AT between April and November for 1-2 weeks at a time.

  • Nighttime temperatures tend to be between 20 degrees in spring and autumn up to 80 degrees in summer.
  • I seldom sleep more than 4,000 feet above sea level.
  • For dinner, I mainly cook 1-pot solo meals, made around a soup base, that I add pasta and other ingredients too.
  • For breakfast, I like to drink sweetened back tea and eat pound cake or logan bread.
  • Weight and bulk are important to me, so I like to use my cook pot as a cup rather than carry a separate one.
  • I loathe pot grippers, so my pots always have foldout handles.
  • I usually camp in sheltered locations like an AT shelter or under a tarp, so I avoid stoves that produce fireballs.
  • I often cook with unfiltered water, so it’s important that I can bring it to a roiling boil to purify it before I cook with it.
  • I don’t need to resupply fuel on trips that last 1 week or less. On longer trips, I’ve found it difficult to find isobutane canisters in small towns along the east coast of the USA, although denatured alcohol is very easy to come by.
  • I hike on rainy days when the woods are wet.

    Soto OD-1R Isobutane Canister Stove

    Soto OD-1R Isobutane Canister Stove

Section Hiking: Stove & Pot Selection

On Section Hikes lasting a week or less, I almost always bring a SOTO OD-1R Microregulator isobutane canister stove with a small fuel canister for short trips and a large 220-240 gram canister if I plan to be out all week. My main cook pot on these trips is a much dented 0.9 liter REI Titanium pasta pot with a colander lid that is no longer available. I’m about to test a new aluminum pot made by Olicamp with built in heat exchanger coils that reduces the amount of fuel needed by about 40%. I am hopeful that this pot will help be able to extend the number of days I can hike with a single isobutane canister.

The nice thing about my canister stove/post system  is that it is very packable. The canister and stove slip into the pot and I use rubber bands to keep the lid on.  It’s worth noting that my system is almost identical to a Jetboil Flash Personal Cooking System setup, except that I can mix and match it with other stove components from other manufacturers. I prefer the latter for flexibility since I hike in a very wide range of conditions, but if you only do 3 season hikes that are a week or less in duration, the JetBoil’s fully integrated stove-pot-heat-exchanger-windscreen is a very attractive option.

For longer section hiking trips that last more than 1 week, I bring an alcohol stove that burns denatured alcohol and the same cook pot. Denatured alcohol is very easy to resupply along the Appalachian Trail, even in small stores, while canister-based fuel is not. You can also find it in any hardware store, paint store, or Walmart.

The only downside with alcohol is when the weather gets colder because it takes more fuel to prime your stove. To prime an alcohol (or liquid fuel stove) you need to set fire to the stove for a few minutes, so it will be warm enough to vaporize the fuel. This just requires a little extra patience and room, to avoid setting your shelter on fire.

Unfortunately, alcohol stoves are very sensitive to wind and a windscreen is really required to use them. The best alcohol stove/windscreen system I’ve used so far is the Trail Designs Caldera Cone, which burns very efficiently. Trails Designs sells a wide variety of models including ones that stow completely in your cook pot like the Sidewinder or that can burn alcohol, esbit (solid fuel), and even wood, all using the same stove / windscreen setup. The latter can be a very attractive option for long distance hiking, since it’s legal to send Esbit tablets via the US Mail for maildrops.

Winter Backpacking in New Hampshire

I typically hike in winter conditions from December – March, mainly in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

  • Nighttime temperatures range from -20 degrees to 30 degrees a night.
  • I seldom sleep above 4,000 feet above sea level.
  • For dinner, I mainly cook 1-pot solo meals, made around a soup base, that I add pasta and other ingredients too.
  • For breakfast, I like to drink sweetened back tea and eat pound cake or logan bread.
  • I bring a separate insulated cup to eat and drink out of so I can still melt snow while I’m eating.
  • I loathe pot grippers, so my pots always have foldout handles.
  • I always cook outside of my shelter, usually in a kitchen area that we dig out of the snow. Even then a wind screen is abolsutely necessary.
  • I melt 6-7 liters of water from snow per day. Snowmelt does not have to be purified, but I like to boil it anyway so that it doesn’t freeze solid when stored overnight in an insulated container.
  • I never go on trips that last more than 3 days/2 nights.

Winter Backpacking: Stove & Pot Selection

For Winter Backpacking, I always bring a liquid fuel stove that burns super-refined white gas. Liquid fuel will burn in temperatures under 20 degrees and burns hot enough to melt snow. The effective limit of an isobutane canister is about  20 degrees, although I know people who claim to use them at even colder temperatures, however they won’t share the secret because they want to patent it. Alcohol and Esbit stoves don’t cut it for winter backpacking because they don’t generate enough heat, and wood is suboptimal because it’s hard to collect enough of it that is dry and not buried.

I use an MSR Simmerlite liquid fuel stove which I bought a few years back because it’s the lightest weight white gas stove made by MSR. However I’m likely to switch to an MSR Whisperlite next year because it has a more reliable pot stand built in. For a pot I am currently using an Everynew 1.3 liter Titanium pot with fold out handles. That’s proven a bit small and I will probably upgrade to a 2 liter pot within the next year, if I can find one with built-in heat exchanger coils to improve fuel efficiency.

Bulk-wise, liquid fuel stoves tend to have a much larger footprint than other fuel/stove types. While my Simmerlite stove, pump, and windscreen fit into my pot, I also need to carry a lot of fuel in a separate 22 or 30 ounce bottle. On the flip side, I never backpack alone in winter so it’s easy to share a stove between several people, as long as they all carry the same brand of fuel bottle.

What do you think are the most important reasons to pick one stove or pot over another?

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27 Responses to How to Choose a Backpacking Stove and Pot

  1. Mazzachusetts July 3, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    Most important reason to me is the number of people using it.

    I have a few pots for solo or group boiling and sometimes mix in an esbit stove when I feel fuel canisters are overkill and I’m solo.

  2. Ron Small July 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm #

    I primary use the Jetboil and now the Jetboil Ti. I will use a Snowpeak Ti pot if I am going to be cooking something other than the freeze dried meals for dinner. Breakfast is usually a cup of coffee or tea and oatmeal. I get 5 to 7 days on a small canister.

  3. Ben July 3, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

    I find that alcohol works just fine in the winter if you don’t need to melt snow. In PA/VA/WV where I do my backpacking in winter the streams are usually still running in winter. The trick to using alcohol is warming it up. Obviously cold alcohol is a pain to light but I find if I put my fuel bottle in my jacket pocket and let it warm up I have no trouble lighting it with the touch of a match. I use the caldera cone as well, it is a brilliant little device. Come to think of it I haven’t used any thing but an alcohol stove the last year and a half of monthly backpacking.

  4. Grandpa July 3, 2012 at 2:26 pm #

    I’ve used many stoves over the years, from the Svea 123 to the Coleman Nuke 1 (that’s what we called it after the memorable conflagration in Boquillas Canyon involving toasted buns not of the wheat variety), the original JetBoil, Caldera Keg, titanium Sierra Zip, and others. I recently bought an Esbit but haven’t gotten to use it yet.

    I’ve used the Caldera Keg on several trips and have mixed feelings about it. It’s light but slow when heating water for three people. The last time, my grandson asked, “Grandpa, why didn’t you bring the JetBoil?” The cone also bound and flexed on me and is now very hard to assemble properly.

    My brother and I use the Sierra Zip stove when doing extended trips because the fuel is on the forest floor. I’m looking at some other wood burning options as well.

    After a few ill planned and executed recipes fused into the Caldera Keg and JetBoil, I switched to freezer bag cooking. Since my prep is now mostly heating water, the JetBoil has been my favorite for its convenience and speed. I just bought a JetBoil Sol Ti and will try it on an upcoming trip.

    My biggest issue with the JetBoil has been finding canisters in small towns on fly and drive trips. My wife and I once flew into Seattle late at night and immediately headed out of town for a few days in Canada and Washington. We stopped at twenty two stores over the next several days and couldn’t find a single one. The last day of our trip, a Ranger at Mt. Baker gave us a canister that had been turned in by someone heading to the airport. Locally, our Walmart just recently started carrying them.

    • Jarra July 4, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

      Speaking as a local, I would say you’re incredibly unlucky to not find canisters in the state of Washington. The place is crawling with outdoor stores and even my supermarket has them.

  5. Paul Osborn July 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    Would that Olicamp pot be compatible with an alcohol stove. I’d like to test the efficiency.

    • Earlylite July 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

      Should be completely compatible. It’s quite inexpensive as well, under $30.

  6. Paul Mags July 3, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    Another option is simply “no stove”. :)

    There is almost not futz factor, resupply is a breeze and such meals as dehydrated beans, cous cous, hummus, mashed potatoes and others rehydrate quite nicely without heat.

    Besides the lack of a futz factor, there is a weight savings if the correct food is chosen.

    But, at least for me, it is the simplicity. No need to be out in the rain getting a stove going. Don’t have to walk around town trying to find HEET or a canister. And it is quiet.

    During hot weather, the stoveless approach works really well. And right now alcohol stoves are banned in most places in Colorado.

    The “no stove” option is not for everyone or all situations, but it is another great tool to have in your backpacking kit of knowledge.

    ps. as a confirmed caffeine addict, I can tell you Starbucks Via works quite well with cold water!

    • Earlylite July 3, 2012 at 11:10 pm #

      I do this once in a while too, but for short trips. It’s a real option.

  7. Jim July 3, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    Something like this for your 2L pot:

    http://www.amazon.com/Esbit-2-35L-Pot-Heat-Exchanger/dp/B003V03EAY

    the only issue is that it goes against your no pot gripper edict.

    I have the Optimus Terra Weekend HE (.95L) and HE 3 piece cook set (1.65L) which I like a lot. Both have heat exchangers.

    • Earlylite July 3, 2012 at 11:09 pm #

      That looks good, but for winter I definitely don’t want to touch metal grippers. I’m much prefer a pot with a top wire handle that I can hold with a heavy mitten on or a stove stand that has a heat exchanger built into it. I know a guy with an arc welding setup – might just make my own!

  8. grannyhiker July 3, 2012 at 10:50 pm #

    Just a note that a number of Rocky Mountain jurisdictions have banned alcohol stoves during the current extreme fire danger. The latest (I’ve heard of) is the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. I think the idiot that started one of the big Colorado fires with his alcohol stove was the last straw! Those going to the Rockies this summer need to pay special attention to the specific rules for the jurisdiction they are in, because the rules do differ!

  9. Bird Legs July 4, 2012 at 3:05 am #

    I prefer a Zelph Super Stove for an alcohol stove. It requires no priming. In fact, you could set the pot on the stove unlit, and then light the stove, it makes no difference. Because it requires no priming, it is one of the most fuel efficient of alcohol stoves. The Zelph crinkly windscreens are very easy to manage also.

  10. Blitzo July 4, 2012 at 6:13 am #

    Bah – I loathe foldout handles, so all my pots need pot grippers.

    My stove selection is similar – except I don’t use isobutane at all, I still think the supercat is the best alcohol stove, and also use white gas for altitude or cold.

    I loathe pot grippers, so my pots always have foldout handles.

  11. Dave July 4, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    I am surprised that there has been no mention of the wick alcohol burners pioneered by Minibulldesigns. Small, lightweight, not effected by altitude. I just got my M2-SB but have not encountered winter or high altitude conditions yet. Shug, known to the hammock hangers, does fine in sub freezing weather with a MBD Elite. At a third of an ounce, no pot stand needed, it can’t be beat. Who wants to pack out empty canisters? Alcohol can be stored in plastic containers, unlike white gas.

  12. Dave July 4, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    Post Script. RE the Colorado and Wyoming fires. Using any kind of stove requires clearing out a reasonable radius radius of any flammable material. I am reserving judgement until I get the details about what stove and the circumstances. Today is the Fourth so I may have trouble getting a hold of any one at the Forest service. http://www.firerestrictions.us is the link for the forest service. The only restrictions I could find were pertaining to petroleum based stove and lanterns that cannot be turned off. They do recommend having a bucket of water near by. And a three foot diameter cleared. Please correct me if I am wrong. I did survive the Yellowstone fires so I know the type of damage that can occur.

    • Dave July 5, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

      Post Post Script. RE the Colorado and Wyoming fires. The name of the fire in question is the Hewlitt Gulch fire in Colorado. I have talked to a person that said it was a commercial stove, due to respect to the manufacturer, I will not mention the name. I do know it holds only two ounces of alcohol. The stove was left burning unattended. Therefore the fact it was alcohol had nothing to do with it. I suspect the camper had not cleared he area.

  13. Bill September 26, 2012 at 2:01 pm #

    Check out the Backcountry Boiler, too.

    • Earlylite September 26, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

      In fact I’ll have one for sale shortly used. Sadly – it just doesn’t cut the mustard if you like to eat non FBC meals.

  14. Phil Poirier September 26, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    I have been doing freezerbag cooking for the last couple of years for my three season outings. Mostly under a week long trip. I boil about 3 1/2 cups in the morning to cover breakfast and coffee and another 2 cups in the evening for dinner. I love the Jetboil Ti for this purpose and found one small canister to last me for a full week! It is hard to beat the simplicity of this system and it just packs so nicely too! Another option I have is the Snowpeak 600 mug with a lid from Smokeeater 908 paired with one of his 6 gram rollover stoves no pot stand needed. This is also a very easy to use, light and packable set up for use with alcohol and my freezerbag style of cooking.

  15. James January 1, 2013 at 10:46 pm #

    What’s the best stove for outside USA use? What did you use in Scotland?

    • Earlylite January 2, 2013 at 9:45 am #

      Depends where you go. Some places jet fuel is more accessible than unleaded gas.
      For Scotland, I took an canister stove, but I wouldn’t do that again unless you have a reliable place to get a gas canister. The guy who was supposed to bring mine didn’t show up. The most reliable solution would be an alcohol stove (they call it meths), or esbit – which you can take on a plane.

      • Mark January 3, 2013 at 6:04 am #

        Not in Scotland ! Meths is Not widely available. I know this from bitter experience with a trangia….bought a whisper lite later.

        • Earlylite January 3, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

          Denatured alcohol is probably available in every small town hardware or paint store in Scotland, or so I’ve been lead to believe. Otherwise grain alcohol or isopropyl will work about as well. To be safe, esbit or whitegas will work of course.

  16. James January 3, 2013 at 3:35 pm #

    This international stove selection is quite tricky. I’m looking into bicycle touring Iceland this summer which will involve a fair amount of camping. Fuels commonly available, based on my research include:

    – Coleman 70/30 butane/propane canisters (as in the US)
    – Campingaz canisters
    – white gas
    – auto gas

    Stoves compatible with the unthreaded Campingaz canisters are rare in the US. There are other caveats though. The white gas that is sold in Iceland is only in 5 liter containers. And the auto gas pumps often impose large minimum purchases. So, based on what I’ve read so far, it looks like canister stoves are the best choice for an American visiting Iceland.

    • Earlylite January 3, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

      I’ve never been able to find them but it’s claimed that there are adapter kits between US (threaded) and European (bayonet) style canisters so you can switch countries and til l use the same stove. If you find one anywhere, let me know about it.

  17. david Saunders January 3, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    Alcohol stoves work with methanol or ethanol, (grain alcohol). I don’t know what the availability is in foreign countries is but being an automotive additive or paint thinner I am sure methanol is available almost anywhere, contrary to previous posts. Also grain alcohol, (Everclear) should also be available as it is potable. :)(Don’t the Scots drink?) Isopropyl sucks because of the soot but should work.

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