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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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  1. Did you seriously leave out the most popular and versatile stove category? White gas stoves and multi-fuel stoves popularized by MSR (whisperlite, etc) have been one of the most carried and reliable stoves on the market for years.

    • No exactly ultralight now are they? Doh!

    • I used a wisperlite for yrs. It was my go to for multi fuel, reliability and quieter than most any other. About 3 yrs ago i statred playing with alcohol. Im now sold on the Trangia. Alcohol is universally available. Alcohol stoves are so simple there is nothing to go wrong unless you step on it and crush it. Its the light and quiet king. Smallest. I used the Trangia this summer on the longest trip ive ever taken, 6 weeks. I used it almost everday. No problems and never had trouble finding fuel.

  2. Would have loved to have seen the Firebox Nano on here considering you have the ability to cook with wood/alcohol AND esbit. It’s available in titanium as well. Folds flat. I have used it in both wood and alcohol stove mode and found it wonderful to cook with and clean up afterwards. Can’t believe it wasn’t mentioned here…

    • I agree. I use mine with alcohol but am always relieved to know I have Esbit tabs and as a last resort I can always go with wood. IMHO it’s the best of all cook systems.

    • I also use the Firebox, and love it. It stores flat and just pops together, as it is all one piece. Terrific when your hands are cold. Plus, it can be used as a sheltering stand for an alcohol stove. 750 ml boils in under 5 minutes with a windscreen. You can make a Swedish torch with it by using 4 fat sticks, placed vertically. And…you get that ‘ol time feeling of pretending to be a woodsman!!

  3. I use the small Solo Stove wood burning stove on backpacking trips. 9oz, and no fuels weight beyond some vaselined cotton balls and slivers of fat-wood for cheating or if it has been raining. Total weight with starters is always between 10-11oz, and in Missouri and the Ozarks, where I do most of my backpacking, fires and finding wood is never an issue.

  4. Good article. One thing missing for me was how much alcohol do you need to boil those two cups of water or how much alcohol would you bring on a week long trip to cook say coffee in the morning and freeze dried in the evening. I like the idea of hydrating your food during the day. It seems like you could then just use the alcohol stove to warm up the meal rather than get it to boiling. Best of both worlds.

    • That’s be a nice addition, but there’s no way to make an accurate estimate given the variety of temperatures, wind conditions, and starting water temperatures you’re likely to encounter.

      • Thanks for the reply. I can’t figure out why alcohol is a lighter weight alternative for backpacking though. In my research it looks like an 8oz. canister of fuel (which weighs about 12 oz.) with a pocket rocket will be enough fuel for about 60 minutes while 10 oz. of alcohol (plus the container at say 1oz.) will burn for about 60 minutes as well. Since the pocket rocket will boil water about twice as fast it seems to me the canister stove would be a better choice cause you get more “burns” per the same amount of fuel. I compared the trangia because it weighed about the same as the rocket. Any thoughts? I get the availability of fuel deal and the simplicity but i’m strictly looking at how many meals can you get with same amount(i.e.weight) of fuel for each stove and it seems like you get more out of a canister stove. In other words no real savings in weight.

      • It’s about the availability of fuel. Want to eliminate container weight? Use esbit.

    • There’s a guy in adventuresinstoving.com that does detailed comparisons between alcohol and canister fuel. With short trips alcohol comes out on top because of the stove weight. As the trip duration increase, canister stove high energy fuel catches up and eventually surpasses alcohol…. until you need to switch to a bigger canister and it again falls behind.

      There are differences in canister cook systems cook times (and thus fuel usage). I find that my Jetboil, with heat-exchange fins, boils water twice as fast as a pocket-rocket. With my JetBoil, I only needed an 8 oz fuel canister for the JMT for each day’s oatmeal and freeze dried dinner.

      You can save quite a bit of fuel by using a cozy. Cooked rice can be boiled for one minute, then the pot put in a cozy for 10 minutes to continue cooking without fuel.

  5. Yeah alcohol fuel consumption varies quite a bit — depending on wind conditions. So precise planning for longer trips would seem tough.

    Also, I’ve been (mainly) using a Trangia mini cook kit for about 25 years. Works fine. Can’t imagine any meaningful improvements. Call it a failure of imagination, but the other alcohol-fired stoves seem like a solution in search of a problem…..

    For more than one person, the canister stoves quickly gain their appeal.

  6. There is the ability to hear the forest while you cook with an alcohol or wood stove.

  7. Another tip: high proof vodka burns efficiently in an alcohol stove..and you can always….(ahem)…need I say more? !

  8. I submit for your consideration: Trail Designs SIDEWINDER or TRI-TI titanium multi-fuel cone stoves

    They burn:_
    1. Alcohol (KOVEA burner)
    2. ESBIT tablets (Modified GramCrakerW/residue tray)
    3. INFERNO insert (makes cone into gassier ty[e wood burning stove)

    These are THE most efficient stoves for these three types of fuel. PERIOD

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