Ultralight Backpacking Stove Guide

Ultralight backpacking Stove Guide

Ultralight backpackers and thru-hikers have a lot of different options available when it comes to picking a lightweight backpacking and camping stove. Here are the pros and cons of using alcohol stoves, canister stoves, solid fuel stoves, and wood stoves.

Ultralight Alcohol Stoves

Alcohol stoves are popular with ultralight backpackers and thru-hikers because they burn denatured alcohol (called meths in the UK), which is inexpensive and widely available in most trail towns, drug, stores, or hardware stores. The simplest alcohol stove is a cat food can with holes punched around the sides for airflow. You simply pour some alcohol into the can, light it with a match or lighter, and it’s on, ready to use. Once lit, it can be very difficult to see the flame in an alcohol stove, since it’s nearly invisible in daylight and some caution is required so you don’t burn a hand.

Vargo Titanium Triad XE Alcohol Stove
For best performance, alcohol stoves need a windscreen

For cooking, alcohol stoves are best used for boiling water which is added to dehydrated freezer bag meals or Mountain House-style camping meals, although some alcohol stoves are available with simmer rings so you can cook with them over a low flame. The downside of using an alcohol stove is that it is very sensitive to wind and must be used with a windscreen which can be awkward to pack. Alcohol fuel is also less powerful than most other types of fuel and it takes a relatively long time to boil two cups of water (7-10 minutes).

It should also be noted that alcohol stoves have been banned in many areas in the United States that have high fire danger, since they are easily tipped over (along with your dinner), spilling fuel and potentially causing a fire. They have been largely replaced by canister stoves in those areas because they are more stable and you can turn off a canister stove easily, something that is a little harder with an alcohol stove since there is no control value.

The Bottom Line: The fuel for an alcohol stove is inexpensive and easy to find in small trail towns that cater to hikers for resupply. 

Recommended Alcohol Stoves

Ultralight Canister Stoves

Soto Windmaster Canister Stove
Soto Windmaster Canister Stove

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 that 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.

The Jetboil Stash is a very efficient stove the comes with a enhanced cooking pot that saves fuel.
The Jetboil Stash is a very efficient stove that comes with an enhanced cooking pot that saves fuel.

Canister stoves are also much less susceptible to wind than alcohol stoves and are usually used without a windscreen 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 in more rural areas that don’t have REI or EMS, although they’re often readily available in trail towns. While the stove-to-canister connection is standardized in the US using something called a Lindal valve, you may come across canisters in other countries, particularly in Europe, with are not compatible and require a bayonet-style connection.

The Kovea Spider stove can burn liquid fuel from a canister that's been turned upside down.
The Kovea Spider stove can burn liquid fuel from a canister that’s been turned upside down.

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 depending on your frequency of use. It is however difficult to use an upright canister stove below 20 degrees Fahrenheit because the outdoor temperature is too cold to let the gas in the canister vaporize. There is a special type of canister stove that can burn canister fuel in its liquid state when the canister is turned upside down. Called an inverted canister stove, it can operate down to about t0 degrees F making it more suitable for colder winter use.

The Bottom Line: Canister stoves cook food quickly, many can simmer meals, and are an excellent option for shorter trips or frequent resupplies. 

Recommended Canister Stoves

Solid Fuel Tablets and Stoves

Esbit (Solid Fuel) stoves are incredibly simple and ultralight
Esbit (Solid Fuel) stoves are incredibly simple and ultralight. You can use metal bottle cap if you want.

Solid fuel tablets were developed in the 1930s 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 tablets require a very simple stove to use, often with a built-in windscreen to improve fuel efficiency.

Like alcohol, solid fuel is best used for boiling water to rehydrate dried foods, although some stoves provide you with the ability to simmer or even bake with ESBIT tablets. The nice about solid fuel cubes like ESBIT is that you only need to bring the fuel you need on a trip and no more. This is usually pretty easy to guess by counting up the number of hot meals or drinks you want.

As Esbit Cube burning in a combination pot stand:wind screen.
As Esbit Cube burning in a combination pot stand:wind screen.

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. 

Recommended Solid Fuel Stoves

Wood Stoves

The QiWiz Firefly UL has a refueling port in that you can feed wood into while the stove is alight
The QiWiz Firefly UL has a refueling port in that you can feed wood into while the stove is alight

Wood stoves are a 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.

Fuel is added to can-based wood stoves from the top and burns down
Fuel is added to can-based wood stoves from the top and burns down

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

Wrap Up

It is possible to backpack without a stove, either by eating foods that don’t require cooking or by cold soaking your meals. Those are both viable ways to eat that can save you a lot of gear weight. I recommend trying them before you decide to forego stove use. Personally, I like having a hot meal at least once a day but the key to ultralight backpacking is self-experimentation, so try it out.

When it comes to deciding between the above-mentioned stove types, external factors do play a significant role in the selection such as fire bans and fuel availability on longer treks. When choosing between the different options give some thought to your complete cooking system and how it will all fit together when packed. For example, will you always eat out of your cook pot and will your fuel source, utensils, and windscreen fit inside your cook pot when packed? That’s many some people prefer using a Jetboil or an MSR Windburner because they pack up so well.

The lightest stove options, by far, are using a wood stove and solid fuel, often together since solid fuel is a good backup if it rains. But they’re also slower and a little messier, with soot and ash, which is probably why they’re the least popular.

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34 comments

  1. Always one to find a simpler, easier, and do-it-myself way, I pursued making alcohol/pop can stoves. After burning up a couple of gallons of fuel on many iterations of stove arrangements, my alcohol stove can heat 16 ounces of water at a rate of 35 degrees/minute. 34 to 36 small pinholes around the outer ridge of the pop can bottom works best. Once water is boiling, I hold the pot at different heights over the flame, and make note of which height the water boils the fastest. The windscreen is then cut to hold the pot at that height. It is vitally important to ensure there’s enough air available for combustion, so the windscreen has large triangles cut out of both the top and bottom edges, and a couple of holes drilled through in the middle area. A thin wall stainless steel bowl with a rim, from the Salvation Army, 1/4 mm aluminum roof flashing for a lid and pot stand/windscreen, and my entire kitchen weighs in at about 5 ounces including a simple Coghlan’s pot gripper. It must be said that nowhere near all alcohol is 100% methyl hydrate. Look for 100% methyl hydrate to use. I’ve burned some ‘gasline antifreeze’ that blackened everything.

  2. The Kovea spider stove is great, especially if you’re doing more than just boiling water. I use it for short trips or when with other people. If I’m alone and doing miles, I’ve been using an OliCamp ion stove. The BRS3000 stove is a copycat design. The difference is the pot supports. On the ion, they are steel instead of titanium so they won’t break off as easily. Oh yea, the other difference is price. Anyway, the best part is when I combine it with my Evernew 750 mug/pot. Just fold down the pot supports, leave the stove attached to the fuel and the whole thing fits in the mug. I use the lid from my 550 mug on top. It is the ultimate lazy backpackers stove kit.

    • the ion is Titanium per their website, but the comment I read as the ion has steel. Is the Ion durable for solo hiking? I am looking for a replacement for my Jetboil as my kit with 6 days of fuel is about an oz less than alcohol stoves with titanium mugs. The Ion seems to be calling me.
      What do you do to stabilize the kit? Windscreen?

      • the way to stabilize a stove like that is to use a 1 oz plastic canister stand. :-) It works wonders for preventing toppling dinners. Unless you *really* know what you’re doing you shouldn;t use a windscreen with a canister stove. There’s a real danger they’ll explode like a landmine if windscreen refects the heat back onto the canister.

      • If you’re looking for fuel efficiency, the ion is not it. In the summer, I get about 15-8 oz. boils per 100 gram canister. Less when it’s cold. The Jetboil is hard to beat for efficiency.

  3. I’ve used a Solo stove in Everglades after heavy rain by chopping at a large piece of driftwood until I got to the dry core and used the shavings. Now if it was still raining while I was doing that it would have been more difficult but still doable.

  4. Soto windmaster is the good standard of canister stoves, should be added. Msr pocket rocket deluxe copied it’s design mostly.

    • yes I totally agree, the Soto Windmaster has been consistently ranked at or the top or near the top of any independent canister stove test I’ve seen. I’ve been using one for several years and love it. extremely efficient very lightweight and elegant. it’s especially interesting that a photograph of it is used in his evaluations and then he doesn’t recommend the stove.

  5. I use a frisky cat food can stove, with homemade windscreen, set at 1 1/2 height. I can consistently boil 2 cups of water at just over three minutes. Air temp at 60 degrees.

    Yes, I have wasted many hours doing boil test. But is something to do in the winter.

    It is only good for boiling water as there is no simmer control.

    You have to adjust height based on the pot diameter you are using.

  6. denatured alcohol is not sold in California anymore.

    • Denatured alcohol can no longer be found in hardware stores in California since it was banned as a paint stripper. Since the ban, I have been able to find it consistently at REI and West Marine (sold as fuel).

  7. I have both the Soto Windmaster and the MSR Pocket Rocket Deluxe. The Windmaster is slightly more fuel efficient and wind resistant than the PRD but it’s detachable pot stand is problematic because if you lose it the stove is mostly unusable. I have never lost the Windmaster pot stand it but I wouldn’t want to risk it on a long hike and think the PRD is a better choice in that situation.

  8. White gas stoves are still available too, such as MSR Whisperlite.

    • I think white gas stoves aren’t really ultralight for one or two people, but the weight equation shifts when you’re cooking for a larger group. Our Scout troops use the Whisperlight almost exclusively for backpacking trips, from overnights to week-long summer adventures. Fuel is relatively inexpensive and easily available, and you can take just what you think you’ll need for a trip. You can do anything from full-on boil to light simmer. And they do well in colder weather.

    • I have used my MSR WHISPERLITE fo 35 years and would nevet use anything else!

  9. As a certified geezer I’ve tried a LOT of alcohol and ESBIT stoves to reduce carried weight.
    MY MOST EFFICIENT ALKY/ ESBIT/WOOD STOVE-> TRAIL DESIGNS Sidewinder Ti Caldera Cone with BGET (Brian Green) ESBIT tablet holder (retains the liquid residue so it can burn longer)
    This stove has the optional INFERNO ti “gassifier” combustion gss recirculating cone. With it won burns HOTTT!
    As we aficionados know, ESBIT tablets can blown out and saved for the next meal. Love that option.

    • BTW, I ordered my Trail Designs Sidewinder ti stove with a 3 cup anodized aluminum pot B/C that height-to-width shape is the most efficient. (Yes, it’s been proven in tests.) The stove is made to perfectly fit the pot – important for maximum fuel efficiency,
      For me 3 the cup pot is perfect for solo cooking (if you actually cooK) and heating enough water for food, drinks and cleaning up.

  10. I have a home made eCHS alcohol stove I use with a Jetboil Stash pot. the pot stand is a cylinder of Aluminum flashing that stores inside the pot. there is no need for a wind screen as the flame is all inside the heat exchangers. 2 cup boils take just a few minutes and 15 g of fuel.

    one thing to add about alcohol stove is it is best to optimize the whole system (pot, stand, stove, screen) to work together.

  11. As for UL canister stoves I prefer my Brunton CRUX folding stove, no, it ain’t the lightest BUT it has a large flame circle for more efficient heat dispersion. This means no hot spots found with small flame rings.
    For best efficiency I also use a DIY wind screen that sits on a folding DIY “pie pan-sourced” aluminum heat shield.

    HOWSOMEVER, for my teenage grandkids I bought a remote canister Fire Maple Blaze 2 (the model with a vaporizing loop beside the burner). It is the lightest remote canister stove I’ve ever found with its folding titanium legs/pot supports and rotating canister attachment for inverted canister use in colder weather.
    I post this because it the stove has all the features needed at a VERY light weight.

  12. I’ve been using an MSR WhisperLite for years, but I’m hoping that I can use a wood stove in the colder months, and maybe go back to using an alcohol stove during the fire ban season.

    On the alcohol stove front, there are some pretty interesting and promising designs from Goshawk Outdoors. I haven’t been able to find many reviews of their stuff yet, other than the Goshawk multifuel stove. They seem to have some very clever stove designs, but the Goshawk web site is pretty weak on the information side of things.

    • Rakesh, I highly recommend Trail Designs titanium Caldera Cone stoves WITH the optional titanium inferno inverted cone insert for the highly gassifier type wood stove that burns combustion gasses..
      This stove will take larger sticks (thumb-sized) than other popular “gassifier” stoves to give you some time away from feeding it to attend to other matters. And it is lighter and rolls up MUCH smaller than any of them.
      So yeah, it is not a cheap date but will last you a lifetime of backpacking. I use mine to melt snow while winter camping to save white gas fuel and with ESBIT tablets and a BGET tablet holder in summer on tough backpacks like rim-to-rim Grand Canyon trips.

  13. Got a question for you. Why, do you think, that Jetboil doesn’t supply a cozy on the Stash as they did on the Flash pot? Seemed like such a great addition on the Flash!

  14. The Vargo Triad is great and flexible. It can be used with denatured alcohol or Esbit tabs and in either mode it has a built in pot stand!

    • I recently picked up a Vargo Triad. I was using a really flimsy Esbit tablet holder and nearly set a picnic table on fire. I also have an Amicus SOTO. So why two? I can boil water for coffee with the Esbit and cook pancakes or other food on the Soto. I don’t hike but I bike travel and camp out. I’m plotting some long trips this Spring and Summer so it will be fun to see how this system works.

  15. I switched from Esbit tablets several years ago because I couldn’t stand the smell or the mess any longer. I have been using Solkoa Faskfire tablets and am very happy w them. They weigh 0.2 ounces each and I get at least 2 boils from each one. They are easier to ligh and easy to put out, they light when wet, no smell, and leave no messy residue behind. I use the Graham Cracker holder and a home made version of the Caldera cone (it’s lighter)

  16. Alcohol-fueled stoves are definitely the way forward as this other than brushwood are certainly non-sustainable when climate change is considered. LPG or CNG, White gas, and Parafine are all fossil fuels and will be fazed out at some stage in the near future. Old tried and true performance alcohol stoves like the Trangia and the Asian copies are great performers with a 50-year track record however there are some new kids on the block worth more than a casual glance. I currently use a “Speedster Stove” from the UK. They are dead simple, spill-proof, and surprisingly quick at boiling water. You can choose to add a simmer ring to give longer cooking times if required. In addition, they are extremely lightweight and very fuel efficient when compared with a Trangia. In conclusion, engineers involved in sustainable fuels for the future are working with the efficient use of alcohol as a reliable and inexpensive fuel for domestic use ie, Blown alcohol through a diffuser used to power a furnace for central heating. In my humble opinion, alcohol is the only safe and sustainable fuel left for hiking.

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