Lightweight and ultralight backpackers have a lot of different options available when it comes to picking an ultralight backpacking and camping stove. Here are the pros and cons of using alcohol stoves, canister stoves, solid fuel stoves, wood stoves, and just going stoveless.
Alcohol stoves are popular with ultralight backpackers and thru-hikers because they burn denatured alcohol, which is inexpensive and widely available, particularly in small towns that don’t have an outdoor outfitter that sells more specialized camping stove fuel. For cooking, alcohol stoves are best used for boiling water which is added to dehydrated freezer bag meals or Mountainhouse style camping meals, although some alcohol stoves are available with simmer rings that enable you to cook more complex meals. The downside of using an alcohol stove is that it is very senstive to wind and must be used with a windscreen which can be awkward to pack. Alcohol fuel is also less efficient than most other types of fuel and it takes a relatively long tome to boil two cups of water (7-10 minutes).
The Bottom Line: The fuel for an alcohol stove is inexpensive and easy to find in small towns.
Recommended Alcohol Stoves
Canister stoves have two main components, a stove head and a pre-filled pressurized fuel canister that you can buy at many outdoor stores. Some models, like those from Jetboil, also have an integrated pot which is easily packable and burns very efficiently, letting you stretch your fuel on longer hikes. Unlike denatured alcohol, canister stove fuel burns very hot and can quickly bring two cups of water to a boil in 4-5 minutes. Canister stoves also have the ability to simmer a meal by regulating how much fuel is fed to the burner.
Canister stoves are also much less susceptible to wind than alcohol stoves and can often be used without a wind screen because the gas inside them is released under pressure. The downside of using a canister stove is that they can be hard to resupply on long hikes because you can only buy them at outdoor stores that carry fuel canisters like an REI or EMS. The total burn time for a small canister is also about an hour or less, making it a more appropriate cook system for shorter hikes that are 5-6 days in duration or less.
The Bottom Line: Canister stoves cook food quickly, many can simmer meals, and are an excellent option for shorter trips where you don’t have to worry about running out of fuel.
Recommended Canister Stoves
Solid Fuel Tablets and Stoves
Solid fuel tablets were developed in the mid 1930’s to provide soldiers with a smokeless, high energy fuel for heating food rations. The most popular type of solid fuel, called ESBIT, is packaged in 0.5 ounce tablets which burn for 12 minutes and provide enough fuel to boil 16 ounces of water. Solid fuel tables require a very simple stove to use, often with a built-in wind screen to improve fuel efficiency.
Like alcohol, solid fuel is best used for boiling water to rehydrate dried foods, although same stoves provide you with the ability to simmer or even bake with Esbit tablets. The downside of solid fuel tablets is that they can be difficult to resupply in small trail towns and they can leave an oily residue on the bottom of your cook pot.
The Bottom Line: Solid Fuel/Esbit Tablets are best for short trips where you don’t need to resupply or as a rainy day fuel alternative for cooking when you bring a wood stove.
Recommended Solid Fuel Stoves
- Esbit Titanium Solid Fuel Stove
- QiWiz Ultimate Esbit System
- Gram Cracker (for use with a Caldera Cone)
Wood stoves are great camping stove option if you are camping and hiking in areas that permit wood fires, downed wood is readily available, and the weather is fairly dry. Wood stoves consist of a square or can-like firebox with vents to pull in oxygen. You fill them up with small sticks the thickness of your finger, light them from the bottom or top, and stack a pot on top to boil water or cook a meal. Simmering is made possible by bringing water to a boil and then feeding the flame with just enough wood to keep the water in your pot boiling slightly.
The advantage of using a wood stove is that you don’t need to carry fuel because you can find it all around you. The disadvantage of wood stoves is that it can rain and you need to carry an alternative fuel like Esbit to cook with or eat stoveless meals.
The Bottom Line: Wood stoves are great if you want to minimize the fuel you carry and enjoy having a fire at night, but don’t want the overhead of starting a campfire.
Recommended Wood Stoves
A final minimalist ultralight backpacking cooking solution is to go stoveless by eating foods that don’t need to be cooked or foods that can be rehydrated using cold water. I know a lot of stoveless hikers who simply rehydrate their meals in a plastic peanut butter jar while they hike, replacing the eaten food with a new batch whenever the jar is empty. This is a good solution if you’re hiking someplace with warm, dry weather where there’s little likihood that you’ll get chilled by cold temperatures or wet rain. In addition to not have to carry a stove or fuel, eating stoveless meals can save a lot of time, enabling you to hike bigger miles during the day or spend more time relaxing in camp.
The Bottom Line: Stoveless cooking eliminates the need to carry a stove or fuel and gives you more time to hike.
Recommended Stoveless Foods
Written 2013. Updated 2014.
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