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Ultralight Backpacking Stove Guide

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.

Esbit alcohol stove and cap
Classic Trangia alcohol stove and cap

Alcohol Stoves

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

Soto Windmaster Canister Stove
Soto Windmaster Canister Stove

Canister 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

Esbit Stove and Windscreen
Esbit Solid Fuel Stove and Windscreen

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

Solo Woodstove
Solo Wood Stove

Wood Stoves

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

Garbanzo Bean Salad
Garbanzo Bean Salad

Stoveless Cooking

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

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97 comments

  1. Solo Stove with Alcohol Insert- all packs up together. lightweight 2 fuel sources in case of rain. Makes the alcohol burn more efficiently. I got a 2 hour burn time with less than 1 oz of alcohol.

  2. Can’t go past the good old cat can stove for me. No moving part to go wrong, weighs just 7 grams, is quite efficient when used with a wind shield and costs next to nothing as well!

  3. I have see a relatively new product called, biolite. After all my research… I think this is the best thing for today’s modern backpacker.

  4. My current set up is the Caldera Cone, which services as a pot stand, wind screen & wood stove. Mini Bull Design Hot Top, which boils a pint from 60* in ~4.5 minutes using ~.5 oz. I can also simmer with it b by removing the donut or just giving it less fuel. I use a syringe to deliver fuel. The syringe is also part of the part of the 1st aid kit and can be used for delivering a few dross to the place I want them on the wood pile. It also extracts sunburnt fuel fromm the stove.

  5. on short camping trips in a wooded area, i only carry my kelly kettle, it can boil a litre of water, and cook a small meal in 5 minutes, and at the same time.

  6. Philip thank you for the “Outdoor Herbivores” suggestion! I have been going through their stock and am really interested in the products, but the one thing that caught my attention the most was the “Sprouting kit.” This looks really cool, and if nothing else seems to be a good source of doing something productive and entertaining on long hikes. Has anyone tried this and what is your experience with it? Thank you!

    http://outdoorherbivore.com/trail-sprout-kit/

    • I have not tried growing sprouts when backpacking. (Make that I have not tried backpacking.) But when I was a kid my grandmother got into sprouting and brought us seed and a sprouter. I think it was just your basic alfalfa sprouts and the container was clear hard plastic with a removable plastic mesh cap at one end. You put in the sprouts, a little water and then put it on the windowsill for some light. I remember it being easy and fun and can’t remember why we stopped doing it.

    • Hi Joshua,
      I use a nut milk bag instead of hemp for my sprouts. Super easy to clean, super strong, finer mesh (you can even strain coffee in it), bomb proof, cheaper and isn’t prone to molding like natural fibers will be. Packs lighter and smaller too! The only problem with nut milk bags is that they don’t hold water in their fibers as well as hemp does. You’ll need to rinse your sprouts twice daily (or drizzle from your water bladder once and a good rinse once daily). You can also drink or use the rinse water or use it for washing, etc. I would highly recommend growing sprouts on the trail if you’ll be out there for several days!

  7. Great post as usual Philip. I have all sorts of stoves, but keep going back to my canister/Rocket. It is quick and efficient. On thing I do is make a scratch in the paint every time I do a burn so I know how many times I’ve used it. On the small canisters I get about seven burns and on the larger ones, about 13. I carry a spare and tend to never get caught without fuel.
    For emergencies, I do carry a few Esbit tablets, but have never had to use them.
    I’ll be hiking the Vermont Long Trail this summer, with Jane, and will be curious to see if I can find canisters north of the AT turnoff.

    • That might be tough Dennis. Not much up there in the northern kingdom, but the LT takes an average of 19 days, so you should be able to get by with 2 big ones, or 1 if you eat some cold dinners.

      • Jane’s a real pack animal, she’ll carry a few extras. She’ll do anything for hot coffee!

      • My Kingdom for a pack animal like that! In the mean time, I have been toying with cooking with wood. I have discovered that you can make some perfectly dry kindling in a day long rain by twisting pencil sized twigs in one of those two holed aluminum pencil sharpeners that will fit in a watch pocket. Super light, it works like a charm. The kindling builds up fast just like pencil shavings. A handful which takes a minute or two to create gets all the other wet kindling roaring nicely. I found the two holed aluminum pencil sharpener in an online arts supply house. While I do love this system, I will continue to look for a pack animal like Jane.

      • Believe it or not Phil, I had no trouble getting canisters. There were so many people finishing section hikes or just beaten by the trail that they gave me their unused canisters. Obviously, one can’t count on that but I had no trouble with fuel.

        Jane finished the first 140 miles of the trail but an ankle injury took her off at Middlebury Gap, so I finished the northern section by myself. What a tough trail!!!

      • If I could just do that with beer….

        Glad you had a good and successful hike. I’m jealous. I may have to go and hike that trail again someday. Sorry to hear about Jane, but I wish her a speedy recovery.

  8. I just got back from a 2 day solo hike. Day 1 I used my alcohol stove once. It seemed to take forever.
    Day 2 I just ate trail mix while on the go.
    I think I’ll try a canister or Trangia next time. Stopping to make tea or coffee or a hot meal adds to the experience and is relaxing. It’s worth the weight and time.

    • I was playing with the Caldera-cone and 12-10 stove today. I brought 16 oz. of cold tap water to a boil in 6 min with 1/2 oz. of fuel. The stove went out about 1 min later.
      Then I tried it a second with 1 oz. of fuel. Again the water boiled at just under 6 min. I then put the adjustable simmer rings on the 12-10 stove. The boil reduced to a nice simmer and the stove continue to burn until just over 18 min.

  9. I found exactly what i want here. A lot of helpful infor for me, I will pick the msr pocket, it seem suitable for my next trips.

  10. For me the Caldera Cone with 900Mls pot is good. For additional windy quick work the MSR pocket rocket is superb. Given the weights I have sometimes brought both as the only addition is the MSR and a canister to give max flexibility. I love the Caldera cone setup but the one type pot is a problem.

  11. I have a jetboil stove. For me it’s great, easy to use and carry, quick boil time, durability.

  12. Hey Philip great post here, do you know or have you heard anything about the Vertex esbit stoves?

    • You do realize that you can use a rock as an esbit stove….

      • You’re right, Philip. I always carry at least five pounds of rocks in my pack. :>)
        (Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself!)

      • Mark – sorry to be flip. I looked at the Vertex stove and it is nearly identical to this one from Esbit, which sucks.
        http://www.campsaver.com/pot-stand-folding-stove
        It too has a suspended fuel plate which is almost impossible to position and keep in place. I bought one and I hate it.
        My original point was simply that you can use rocks for esbit as a fuel plate, stove stand, and wind screen if you want to. It’s really that simple. No need to carry all your rocks either (like Dennis – he’s such a ham!)

      • Philip — I’ve got the folding Esbit stove too. I found the best use for it is to disregard the plate that holds the fuel tablet, and pop a trangia alcohol burner in there instead. It adds some decent protection from the wind, and shaves off a substantial amount of weight and space when compared to the standard trangia kit.

        I haven’t stalked enough of your posts to know whether you’re a fan of the alcohol stoves, but it’s my preferred ultralight option, especially when paired with a recycled soda bottle for carrying extra fuel.

        Hopefully this information will help someone.
        -Cheers!

  13. To say an alcohol stoves takes up to 10 minutes to boil two cups of water is very misleading. With little study and some trial and error, my pop can stove boils .75 liter of cold water in 5 minutes.

  14. Someone may have noted this in the comments to your excellent post, but the Ti-Tri Caldera Cones, while pricy, are three-fuel stoves, providing great stability, wind and rain protection, and and option to “adjust” heat in its wood-burning mode.

  15. I did the burn test thing with an EverNew titanium AND a Trangia brass, using denatured alcohol fuel and 6 cups tap water.

    Timed each for min boil time (per cup water) AND max simmer time. The EverNew has a high heat with pot suspended ABOVE, and low heat with pot directly ON. The Trangia has a high heat without simmer ring, and low heat with simmer ring closed down to about 6mm (0.25 inch).

    With either burner, figure the cold pot itself similar to “1 cup of cold” needing heat in addition to the real liquid contained, and figure 6ml (0.2 oz) needed to bring each “cup” nearly to boil – for example 1 pot + 2 cups water = 3 virtual cups.

    Discovered the EverNew high heat burns 6ml in just over 1 minute, and the Trangia high heat takes about twice as long. At a full fuel load on lowest heat, 60ml in the EverNew will simmer for 30 minutes, 90ml fuel in the Trangia will simmer for 90+ minutes.

    So the best alcohol burner with the most options is a set of BOTH. The EverNew low heat is useless in company with the Trangia with simmer ring, and the Trangia without simmer ring is useless in company with the EverNew suspended.

    I can use the EverNew, suspended, to nearly boil 1 pot with 2 cups water in about 3 minutes using 18ml fuel when it burns out. I can use the Trangia with simmer ring open at 6mm to simmer for 90+ minutes. Once the Trangia burns out, I can quickly refuel another 90ml and simmer for another 90+ minutes, and so on. A roast or stew recipe that needs to simmer for 4 hours needs another 60ml to simmer until the 4th hour mark.

  16. Awesome guide. I have been searching for these tips. Keep up the great work. Love your blog.

  17. Great page on backpacking stoves. Thanks for all the info. Comments were also great.

  18. I am sure someone covered it, but California due to lack of water has had many fires this year and that means rangers are really cracking down on any stove with an open flame and are requiring stoves with an off switch. I have enjoyed wood and alcohol stoves for years, but my last trip we were told to only use canister stoves because they can be turned off.

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