Ultralight Backpacking Stove Guide
There are lots of options when choosing a lightweight backpacking stove: alcohol stoves, canister stoves, wood stoves, solid fuel stoves and cooking on a campfire. Here are some of the pros and cons of each.
Alcohol Backpacking Stove
Alcohol stoves are a popular backpacking stove among thru-hikers and long distance backpackers because they are lightweight, inexpensive and burn liquid fuel that is easy to find in most small towns.
An entire cottage industry has sprung up around designing and building different variations of alcohol stove. There are dozens of stove designs which you can build yourself in less than an hour from ordinary items like soda cans. If you are not very handy and don’t want to build one yourself you can also purchase one online.
The two types of fuel used by most alcohol stoves is denatured alcohol (available from hardware stores) and Yellow HEET (gas line antifreeze available from auto parts stores and most gas stations).
An alcohol backpacking stove typically has three parts: the burner, a pot stand and a windscreen. Fuel is poured into the burner and lit, the pot stand goes above the burner and the windscreen around everything (wind is the enemy of alcohol stoves).
Most alcohol stoves can bring two cups of water to a boil within 7-10 minutes using less than an ounce of alcohol fuel. There is no way to adjust the heat with any precision on this type of backpacking stove so most hikers use them to boil water which is added to dried food (such as rice, noodles, dehydrated or freeze dried meals, etc.) Some alcohol stoves include a “simmer ring” attachment, which can be used to reduce heat and extend burn time.
In my experience alcohol stoves are not good for much more than boiling water. Which is fine, because boiling water is the extent of what most ultralight backpackers do for cooking.
What I don’t like about alcohol stoves is when you add up the weight of the fuel plus all of the accessories (pot stands and windscreens and such) the total weight usually dwarfs the weight of the stove, and the whole system sometimes ends up being heavier than you might expect.
This, combined with the lack of heat adjustment and poor performance in wind, is why I stopped using alcohol stoves a few years ago and switched to a canister stove.
Some Popular Alcohol Stoves:
- Zenstoves.net (DIY alcohol stove plans)
- Caldera Cone Alcohol Stove
- White Box Alcohol Stove
- Trangia Alcohol Stove
- Soda Can Stove
Canister Backpacking Stove
Gas canister stoves are (in my opinion) the best option for an ultralight backpacking stove as long as you can find the fuel you need where you are going. Canister stoves are simple, sturdy and efficient and work well in wind and weather. Unlike alcohol stoves, canister stoves also allow for precise heat regulation.
A canister stove consists of two parts: The stove (which doubles as a pot stand) and a disposable isobutane fuel canister (which the stove screws on top of). Once the stove is attached to the canister you simply turn the adjustable valve and light the gas to start cooking.
An external windscreen is not needed except in very gusty conditions because the flame is small, hot and shielded from the wind by small wings built into the burner. Canister stoves work well in cold weather too.
The biggest disadvantage of this type of backpacking stove is that the fuel is not as widely available as alcohol fuel. Sometimes it may be necessary to carry larger canisters for some stretches of trail or maildrop canisters (which is a hassle due to postal regulations).
The canisters are made by several different companies (MSR, Snowpeak, Brunton, Jetboil being a few) and they are all interchangeable. You can find them in most sporting goods stores and resupply outposts near trails like the Appalachian Trail, Colorado Trail and Pacific Crest Trail which cater to hikers, but not many other places.
The canisters come in several different sizes to accommodate different trip lengths and group sizes. The 4 ounce and 8 ounce canisters are the most popular among ultralight backpackers. This weight refers to the amount of fuel in the canister, not the total weight (which includes the weight of the canister).
I have been using a canister stove for a few years and I’ve found that a 4 ounce canister (which weighs about 7 ounces full) gives me enough fuel to cook for 4-6 days. If I know there is fuel available in the next town I’ll pack a small canister. If not, I will bring a larger 8 ounce canister, which usually lasts for 10-14 days.
Some Popular Canister Stoves:
Solid Fuel Backpacking Stove
Solid fuel tablets were originally invented for the military to provide soldiers with a portable fuel source to heat their rations. Minimalist ultralight backpackers have adopted them as a convenient lightweight cooking option for simple meals (emphasis on simple).
Solid fuel tablets are made from flammable chemical compounds that when lit produce a small flame that burns for about 10 minutes. A solid fuel “stove” is usually just a platform on which the tablet can sit combined with some some of pot support.
As with alcohol stoves an external windscreen is needed with solid fuel stoves because the flame is small and can be blown out or significantly reduced by wind.
The most popular brand of fuel tablet is made by Esbit. Other manufacturers also produce solid fuel tablets from other materials (Hexamine, Trioxane, etc.) A tablet typically weighs only about half an ounce. If all you need to do is boil 2 cups of water a day you would only need 2.5 ounces of fuel for five days. That’s pretty light!
However, solid fuel has it’s downsides too. If you want to do anything more than boil water you will need to use more than one tablet, which quickly eats into the weight savings. Tablets are more expensive and harder to find than alcohol or canister fuel and they are subject to the same inconvenient postal regulations as other flammable materials. They also emit toxic fumes as they burn and leave a sticky black residue on the bottom of your pot.
I like solid fuel stoves because of their simplicity and light weight. But for long distance hiking the availability of fuel (or lack thereof) is a problem. If you do shorter hikes where you don’t have to resupply on fuel mid-trip, or don’t mind relying on maildrops, you could make it work.
Some Popular Solid Fuel Stoves:
Wood Burning Backpacking Stove
Wood burning stoves typically weigh more than other types of ultralight backpacking stove, but they make up for it because you don’t have any fuel weight.
These range in design from an old coffee can with a few holes cut in it (hobo stove) to fancy wood gasification stoves with complex chambers and ventilation systems, battery operated fans, etc.
The benefit of a wood burning backpacking stove is that you don’t have to carry or buy any fuel. They only require small sticks for fuel, unlike a campfire which needs larger wood, so it’s easy to find free fuel just laying around on the ground.
One problem with wood stoves is when you camp in places where there is no wood to burn, like above treeline or in the many wilderness areas where fires are prohibited for various reasons. Also, having to build a fire every night before you can eat dinner can get tiresome quickly, especially on a long hike.
I love the idea of wood burning stoves, especially the ability to use natural fuel and not relying on stores and maildrops as much. I’ve entertained the idea of trading in my canister stove for a wood stove, but the only thing that has stopped me is my own laziness. When I get into camp I want to do as little work as possible for my food because I’m tired and hungry.
But if you are more ambitious than me (or if you hike fewer miles per day and spend more time in camp) a wood burning stove may be the perfect ultralight backpacking stove for you. Unlike other lightweight stoves where you have to constantly ration your fuel consumption, with a wood stove you can cook till your heart’s content (as long as there is wood to burn).
Some Popular Wood Burning Stoves:
Cooking On A Campfire
Sometimes newer isn’t always better. People have been cooking on campfires for thousands of years. A few decades back there was a bit of a backlash against campfires and hikers started using gas stoves because it was thought to be better for the environment.
Now it’s becoming apparent that everything that goes into manufacturing and using petroleum based fuels and stoves may have a greater negative impact on the environment than burning wood ever did.
Go figure. Kind of funny how things go back and forth like that. Reminds me of the egg debate (nobody can agree on whether they are good or bad for you).
Regardless of what you think about that, a campfire is still an effective way to cook your food. Although it may be a bit overkill in some cases. If you are already building a fire to stay warm or socialize around, then by all means cook on it too. But it seems a bit wasteful (both of wood and labor) to build a campfire for the sole reason of heating up some macaroni and cheese.
There are a couple methods I know of for cooking on a campfire. One is to create a tripod from three sticks and dangle the pot above the flames. Most ultralight cookpots do not come with a handle, so you will need to make one from bailing wire and screw two holes in the side of the pot to attach it. Parachute cord can be used to tie the handle to the tripod (as long as you don’t lower the pot too close to the flames and melt the cord).
A simpler option, which works well if you are just boiling water or cooking something that doesn’t need even heat distribution, is just to set the pot in the flames or at the edge of the fire where it can absorb the heat. Then fetch it out with a pot grabber or gloved hand.