The MSR Whisperlite Stove was introduced in 1984 and is still the best liquid fuel stove you can buy for group camping, backpacking, and winter mountaineering. Preferred by professional guides and expedition leaders, the fuel efficiency, reliability, and field repairability of the MSR Whisperlite make it a go-to stove on any group trip, including winter trips where snow melting is required.
Liquid Fuel (White Gas)
The MSR Whisperlite is a liquid fuel stove, meaning that it burns white gas, also known as Coleman Camp Fuel. Coleman Fuel is inexpensive and widely available throughout the USA in most hardware stores, outdoor stores, and many supermarkets. White gas is highly refined unleaded gasoline without additives, also called naphtha, and while you can buy a proprietary blend like MSR Superfuel, there’s really no need to pay the extra money.
White gas differs from other common stove fuels because it can burn in subzero temperatures making it a very reliable stove fuel for cold weather, and snow camping.
Whisperlite Stove Components
Out of the box, a MSR Whisperlite backpacking stove includes:
- burner with an integrated pot stand, primer cup, and brass fuel line
- fuel pump
- wind screen and base plate (not shown below)
MSR Fuel bottles are sold separately, and while multiple sizes are available (11 oz, 20 oz, and 30 oz), most people get a 20 oz bottle to begin with. You can also purchase an annual service kit or expedition repair kit, which becomes useful when you want to clean or repair your stove, usually after many uses.
Assembly and priming
Lets take a closer look at these components and review how to light the Whisperlite, which requires priming, a step you may be unfamiliar with if you’ve never use a liquid fuel stove before
MSR Fuel Bottles
Unlike canister stoves, you have to fill an MSR fuel bottle with white gas before you set out on a trip. When using one of these bottles in winter, it’s customary to wrap the bottle in duct tape to prevent frostbite which can result if you touch the bare metal when there’s gas inside in below freezing weather.
While MSR bottles include a locking cap which prevents the bottle from leaking, you have careful to make sure it’s threaded properly. You can’t use a non-MSR bottle with the Whisperlite, but MSR bottles are interchangeable with other liquid fuel stoves that MSR makes (should you start collecting more stoves, as many of us have)
The Whisperlite stove comes with a plastic fuel pump that screws on top of the fuel bottle, after you’ve removed the locking cap. Like the cap, you want to make sure it’s threaded on properly, because it needs to form a pressurized seal. Make sure the fuel valve is closed (clockwise) before inserting the pump body into the fuel bottle and screwing it down firmly.
The Whisperlite Burner
The MSR Whisperlite Stove unit includes a burner head, integrated pot stand, fuel line and primer cup. When you transport the stove, the integrated pot stand folds up, so you can store the stove and pump together in your cook pot when carrying it in your pack. I have a picture of what this looks like at the end of this post. When you unfold the stove, the legs and integrated pot stand lock in place around the burner head. This pot stand can hold large cook pots, so it’s good for group cooking especially if you want to boil a lot of water at once.
There’s also a brass fuel line that runs through one of the pot stand’s legs. It’s designed to keep the fuel bottle a safe distance from the burner, so the fuel bottle won’t overheat. The tip of the fuel line fits into the open valve opposite the fuel valve on the pump, like so. You’ll need to flip the bottle on its side to get the two to fit together properly.
Next, grasp the top of the plastic pump (with the 6 triangles above) and pump it 20-30 times to pressurize the fuel bottle. All you’re doing in pumping air into it, so that the pressure will force the fuel to flow through the fuel line and into the burner head.
Priming the Whisperlite
When you prime a stove, your goal is to heat the stove itself, so that it vaporizes (boils) fuel that comes contact with it. If you’ve ever lit an alcohol stove, you have to pour a small amount of fuel on the stove itself to heat it up.
However, instead of setting the Whisperlite on fire, you’re going to open the fuel line valve for a moment and fill the primer cup under the burner with a small amount of fuel, light it, wait for most of it to burn off, and then slowly open the fuel line so that fuel can continuously flow from the bottle to the burner,.
Locate the primer cup under the main burner and open the fuel valve on the pump so a small amount of white gas fills it. Close the fuel valve again, and light the fuel in the primer cup with a match or ignition source. If you do it right, there should be a very small flame, not a big fireball.
When most of the fuel in the primer cup has burned off and the flame is close to going out, open the main fuel valve slowly and feed gas to the burner. It will vaporize when it reaches the stove and ignite, eventually turning the top of the stove a molten red when the burner heat up.
These steps are also illustrated in a video from MSR which describes the operation and safety precautions for all of their white gas stoves
Running the Whisperlite
Once the stove is going, you can regulate the intensity of the flame by opening or closing the fuel valve on the pump, and by pumping more air into the fuel bottle as the pressure and fuel level drops. If you accidentally let the stove go out, let it cool for 5-10 minutes before repriming it from scratch. If you turn open the gas valve while the stove is still hot, you can easily create a vaporized fuel fireball, which is best avoided for safety reasons. Be patient and be safe.
While simmering is possible using a Whisperlite stove, you have a limited amount of control in how low you can turn the flame and can easily turn off the stove if you close the fuel value too quickly. If you intend to simmer, it’s best to cook fairly soupy meals that are unlikely to burn and to keep the pressure in the fuel bottle fairly low, so that fuel flows to burner more slowly (producing less heat). This can be difficult to regulate in the field however, so practice simmering at home before you rely on it for a trip.
Three Season Use
While most of the photos shown here illustrate the Whisperlite in use as a winter stove for cooking and melting snow, it’s also makes an excellent stove for group cooking when everyone on a trip prepares and eats their meals together.
The fact that fuel bottles can be refilled easily and reused, along with the widespread availability of inexpensive fuel, makes white gas a relatively low-cost, low waste alternative to canister gas, while remaining much faster to cook with than wood or alcohol when cooking for multiple people.
Packing the Whisperlite
As mentioned previously, the Whisperlite stove stands folds for easy storage and transport inside your cook pot, as shown below. This is doubly convenient because soot has a tendency to form on the primer cup and storing the stove in your pot helps keep it making your other gear dirty.
In practice, a 1.3 L pot is required (at a minimum), to store the Whisperlite stove and the pump if you want to store them in the same pot. Much smaller and you’ll need separate containers to store the two components.
While liquid fuel stoves have been eclipsed by the widespread adoption of canister-based stoves system and alcohol stoves, liquid fuel stoves like the MSR Whisperlite are still the best option for group camping and backpacking in three season and four season winter conditions. White gas is inexpensive and available in large quantities, you can refill your own fuel bottles between trips and bring only the amount of fuel you need, and they generate less waste in terms of fuel canisters that need to be recycled. White gas burns hot, in cold temperatures, and at high altitude making it ideal for group expedition cooking, where many mouths must be fed at the same tie, and for melting snow for drinking water.
But let’s face it. the MSR Whisperlite is not the lightest weight stove you can carry on a trip, not by a long shot: the stove and pump weigh 11.4 oz, not including the fuel bottle. Why then is the MSR Whisperlite so well-loved and highly praised, even though there are more modern white gas stoves available today that are lighter weight and easier to light? (check out the more recent MSR Whisperlite Universal Stove which burns white gas or canister fuel)
I think it really boils down to a Ford vs Fiat discussion. People purchase Ford automobiles because they’re reliable cars, the parts are easy to get, and anyone can fix them no matter where your car breaks down. You can’t say the same of a Fiat, even in 2015.
The same holds for MSR Whisperlite stove. This stove is used by just about every boy scout troop and outdoor club in the United States and most volunteer trips leaders and professional guides are experts in its use. The MSR Whisperlite is very easy to fix and maintain and its commonplace to hear of Whisperlites that are still going strong after 10, 15 or even 20 years of hard use. That’s a heck of track record, and why the MSR Whisperlite is the still best selling liquid fuel stove of all time.
Disclosure: MSR provided Philip Werner (SectionHiker.com) with a sample MSR Whisperlite Stove for this review.
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