Start cooking light

We backpackers love our stoves. I don't think there is any item that generates as much heat (see what I did there?) among backpackers, and ultralighters especially, as a new stove. We can't get enough of them, which is just as well because there are so many to choose from: wood burning stoves, wood/alcohol combinations, esbit tabs, homemade cat cans, canister mounted, chimney/kettle designs... the list goes on. So where do we begin when we want to narrow down the choices?

 

Fuel efficiency, availability and weight considerations

The all time classic backpacking stove is undoubtedly the Trangia. There are many different varieties available, and they even make an "ultralight" version out of "ultralight aluminium" that weighs in at a dizzyingly flighty 690g/1.5 lb. Compare this to a more accurately ultralight equivalent, the (not particularly light) Jetboil Flash Lite which weighs 312 g / 11 oz, or the miniscule SnowPeak LiteMax (50 g / 1.9 oz), and even the lightest Trangia is laughably heavy.

But weight alone should not be the only consideration when choosing a lighter stove. One important factor when picking a stove is the availability of fuel in the area that you'll be using it. This goes beyond the simple matter of "Can I get Primus gas cans in Guatemala?"  (Although that is, of course, an important consideration if you plan on going to Guatemala.)

Take wood burning stoves, for example. I love them, but I mainly hike in areas where there is ample wood or other combustible material available. There is also the issue of whether or not you are permitted to use them because of fire or ecosystem restrictions. If you're hiking in forested regions, not having to carry fuel with you is great way to save weight. Foraging for suitable twigs and sticks is also a nice way to wind down after a long day's hiking. (Here's a tip: I like to carry a ziploc bag with me on the trail and collect as I go toward the end of the day. That way I'm ready for a nice cuppa when I make camp.) With a wood burner you can make as many hot drinks as you like, providing you don't mind collecting more wood (or, you know, burn down an entire forest).

As much as I like wood-burning stoves, there are some areas where canister stoves are essential and convenient. They are perfect for anywhere that prohibits open fires, and great when you want a fast, efficient boil. In winter they are often a godsend – a no-fuss way of getting warm – and while their efficiency rapidly deteriorates in cold weather, there are ways around this (keeping your canister warm, placing it in a shallow bowl of water, or using a remote canister style stove with a pre-heating tube and inverting the gas can). The downside is that the gas canisters are heavy and bulky, but recent technological advances make an ideal situation — small canisters, excellent fuel efficiency, light weight — possible.

Another popular fuel source is alcohol. A simple alcohol stove can be made from an (empty!) can of beer/water or a cat food tin, and the small amount of fuel needed for a boil make it an ideal choice for longer trips – providing you can deal with poor efficiency, and carry a decent wind break.

Finland. Ultralight backpacker's paradise, or evil socialist dystopia? You decide.

Finland. Ultralight backpacker's paradise, or evil socialist dystopia? You decide.

Esbit tabs are also popular for their lightweight, compact simplicity. Assuming you're just boiling water for food/drink, you can easily estimate your fuel needs based on 1 tab per meal (I find 1 Esbit tablet is enough to boil water for a meal and leave a little spare for some tea/coffee), and they burn reliably (although the residue they leave on the underside of the pot is a minor annoyance that requires a little scrubbing).

But how about the ultimate in ultralight: carry nothing. If you're hiking somewhere familiar that allows firemaking – either in designated places or in safely constructed, leave-no-trace compliant fireplaces – perhaps you can get away with using the natural or provided resources. Finnish laavu's, for example, often provide a supply of chopped wood. Some even have iron kettles over the fire pits. If you plan your route carefully, it's possible to travel from camp to camp and never have to carry a pot, stove, or fuel. 

However, having experienced a morning surrounded by nothing but damp twigs which my wood stove refused to burn, I'm firmly believe that it's always good to have a plan B - and that's where multi fuel systems like the Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti-Tri shine. Through a clever combination of parts which all fit inside your pot, you can burn wood, alcohol, or Esbit tabs. I now use the Sidewinder almost exclusively for trips where a low weight is essential: its flexibility to weight ratio can't be beaten.

 

What does Backpacking North use?

For many years I got by just fine with a Primus Micron canister-mounted stove. My original version weighs a not unreasonable 98g. It was one of the first lightweight stoves, and has lasted well. Now it appears to have been rebranded as the Primus Express at 82g / 2.9oz (without piezo ignition).

The Primus Micron (original version) on holiday in Lofoten at a time  when it was still considered essential to carry yellow plastic bowls everywhere.

The Primus Micron (original version) on holiday in Lofoten at a time 
when it was still considered essential to carry yellow plastic bowls everywhere.

To be honest, while there are differences between canister-mounted stoves, they all boil water reasonably quickly, and for short trips any one of them will suffice. If I had to buy a new one today, I'd be looking at the SnowPeak LiteMax (54g / 1.9oz) – or the soon-to-be-released MSR Pocket Rocket 2 (2.6oz / 73g) which has been getting rave reviews at Adventures in Stoving and Hike Lighter.

Incidentally, Backpacking Light has an exhaustive analysis of gas canisters (membership required), and the effect that the proportions of the blend of gases contained in various brands has on boil times in different temperatures. This is most relevant for use at altitude or in winter, at which point it makes more sense to use a remote stove (one that is connected to the gas canister via a tube) so that the canister can be used inverted. I use a Primus Express Spider in winter for exactly that reason. As we're dealing with three-season trips in these articles, I'll leave it to Adventures in Stoving to provide more info on why inversion is useful.

A few years ago, I picked up a JetBoil SolTi for a trip above treeline in Lapland where I expected wood to be sparsely available. For a while they were all the rage until some issues with the welding of aluminium to titanium were detected. Mine has lasted quite well, and while it's still a touch on the heavy side, it compares well as a completed system for trips of up to 10 days, and really does boil water extremely quickly (2 to 3 minutes). The latest iteration of the SolTi is the Jetboil Flash Lite (11 oz / 312 g) 

Carrying gas canisters is a bit of a drag though. I always end up playing safe and carrying too much, and then accumulating a small collection of canisters in various states of emptiness (cans can now be more easily recycled using a CrunchIt tool). All that changed when I ordered a BushBuddy Ultra – a handmade, lightweight (139g), highly efficient wood burning stove made by Fritz Handel in Canada (and licensed to BushCooker in the EU – but let's be honest, would you order anything from that website?). My first impressions were noted here, and I still maintain that its sculpted flames are a joyful sight to behold.

BushBuddy in action. Note that the pot is black from soot, not Rust-Oleum.

BushBuddy in action. Note that the pot is black from soot, not Rust-Oleum.

Today, I split my stoving requirements between the JetBoil and the Trail Designs Sidewinder Ti Tri. I use the Sidewinder with the wood burning inferno kit packed neatly in a 500ml pot. The total weight is something like 200g, and with it I can burn Esbits, alcohol, and wood. It typically take two Esbits per day, sometimes some alcohol, and the wood burning attachments. To be honest I find alcohol burning to be less satisfactory; I end up using more fuel than I plan for, it takes a very long time to get to a boil, and the flames are affected by the wind (even in the cone). Esbits are more predictable and reliable, and wood is a nice option to have.

For shorter trips, however, I often grab the JetBoil. What I love about it is its sheer simplicity and speed. I know that in 2 minutes I'll have enough boiling water for my meal and a drink. It works every time, and sometimes you just want food and warmth inside you as quickly as possible, and on those occasions faffing around with alcohol or wood is just an annoying hinderance to a quick lunch.

More recently, I've bought a Vargo Bot, which is a very nice titanium pot with a screw cap, weighing 133g / 4.7 oz. I've tried multiple alcohol stoves with it, in combination with many types of improvised and purchased windscreens, but again I return to gas for speed and efficiency. The smaller gas canisters fit inside the pot perfectly, and the new MSR Pocket Rocket 2 should also squeeze in there too. It forms the centrepiece of a compact, adaptable cook set that can potentially combine gas, Esbit, wood, or alcohol, or any combination as desired. I anticipate that this will replace the JetBoil and be the one cook set to rule them all. Time will tell...

 

WHAT DO OTHERS USE?

Maybe it's just the idea of playing with fire, but stoves seem to be one object that we love to purchase over and over again, in various forms, just for the sheer hedonistic fun involved in boiling a pot of water.

Stove trends make their way around the blogosphere like memes. The current hottest items (ho ho ho) are:

JetBoil Flash Lite
The ultralight version of the JetBoil Flash, the Flash Lite  weighs a skimpy 11 oz / 312 g, and boils fast (around 2 minutes in good conditions). For $99.95 you get a reliable one-pot system that's wind resistant and works well in cold temperatures. Backpacking Light gave the original SolTi a Highly Recommended rating, and Ryan Jordan is a "huge fan". The corrosion problems that plagues the SolTi have been overcome on the Flash Lite which uses the same metals for a more secure bond. If you're happy with a cook system that just boils water reliable, the Flash Lite is a winner. If you need the possibility to simmer, the MicroMo is a better, and only slightly heavier choice. 

Soto OD-1RX WindMaster
Canister mounted stoves are a great weight saving option, but they suffer one flaw: vulnerability to wind (it's all the dehydrated food). Many manufacturers make models with more wind resistant designs, but the Soto WindMaster has achieved much praise. Adventures in Stoving praises it particularly highly, and at only 67g / 2.3 oz you'll save a ton of weight. 

Boilerwerks Backcountry Boiler
As an example of community-funded product development, the Backcountry Boiler had everyone in the ultralight stove world all a tizzy a few years ago. Weighing 8oz (226 g), the boiler is constructed of a container vessel built around a central chimney, which is placed on a stove bottom. Wood can be dropped into the chimney, and the excellent wind protection ensures a fiery burn and a rapid boil. They also offer a FireFelt alcohol wick which fits inside the burner section, extending the usefulness of the stove. Lightpack has a review, as does Trail Savvy, and the aptly-named Burning Little Sticks has a nice write-up.

There is also a spurious knock-off version of the Backcountry Boiler sold, I'm ashamed to say, in the UK, but it's name will not be mentioned in these pages, as such tomfoolery should be frowned upon.

BushBuddy Ultra
If there's one stove that's achieved a cult status among ultralight backpackers, it's the BushBuddy Ultra. The list of its advocates is as long as my arm (and my arms are pretty long). Check out the thoughts of Wood TrekkerAdventures in StovingUltralight and Comfortable, and Paddling Light. I love mine too.

While the BushBuddy is not expressly designed for multi-fuel use, Zelph makes a nice little Companion alcohol burner that has been designed to work with the BushBuddy. Although it is a little thirsty on fuel to get to a rolling boil, it works very well, but you'll need a solid windscreen to make it truly effective.

The Bearable Lightness has a post about other multi-fuel possibilities, and another on using the BushBuddy above treeline.

For the ultimate in ultralight multi-fuel stovery, we need to turn to...

Trail Designs Ti-Tri Caldera Cones & Sidewinders
The original Trail Designs Ti-Tri stove was a bit hit when it appeared years ago, but many complained that while the stove was great, the packing system – a plastic tube – was less efficient. Trail Designs listened to their customers and started making cones that were custom fitted to specific pots (hence the lack of weights here – but you can get the specs from their site; all you need to know is: "it's very light"). 

Their greatest refinement of the design is the Sidewinder Ti-Tri, which offers a full-sized caldera cone fitted to your pot. For reviews from a veritable Who's Who of the ultralight cognoscenti, check out Barefoot JakeAndy Howell, Ray EstrellaKeith FoskettJolly Green GiantJourneyman Traveller, Nielsen Brown Outdoors

The secret to Trail Designs success is the flexibility of the system. The caldera stoves come ready to burn wood (and the "Inferno" optional extra, transforms the stoves into a stick-eating furnaces comparable to the BushBuddy – as Roger illustrated), alcohol (via a small burner) and esbit tabs (via the included miniscule Gram Cracker stovelet).

Which brings us neatly to...

Esbit Tabs
For a long time I avoided Esbit tabs, and my feelings about them were pretty much summed up by Brian Green and the subsequent comments on his post "I really want to like Esbit tabs." I felt I had to like them more, but they seemed a bit messy. However, after trying them on a trip to Sarek, I was converted. Yes, they do leave a residue on the bottom of the pot, but it can be scrubbed clean quite easily. What I like most is that they are quite predictable and burn well, even in wind. When you know that 1 tab equals 1 meal (and a tea if you're lucky) it's easy to plan your fuel needs for a trip.

In any case, Brian Green obviously also came around to the as he has his very own Esbit burner design now on sale through Zelph. One last tip: buy square tabs and not round ones

Last but not least...

Alcohol Stoves
The great thing about alcohol stoves is that they exemplify the concept of a little going a long way, and indeed, it's almost a rite of passage in ultralightdom to make your own alcohol stove. They are easy to makecome in multiple forms, and, in the right hands, make an excellent choice for long distance travel. The excellent hands I have in mind which prove this point would be those belonging to Andrew Skurka, who provides instructions for making a stove out of a cat food can. He used it for seven months on his Great Western Loop hike and other adventures.

Other purveyors of fine alcohoolery include Zelph and Stormin Stove Systems.

 

Footnote: paint it black

Interestingly, Backpacker had some advice for newbie ultralighters, informing us that we can "reduce fuel consumption by [...] painting the bottom of all silver pots with flat black Rust-Oleum stove paint, which boosts efficiency by 30-40%". I had to read the line about painting the bottom of your pots black a couple of times to let the astounding nature of this tip sink in.  In all the years I've been backpacking, both traditional and ultralight, I had never once seen or heard of anyone doing this. Could it be that backpackers light and heavy had somehow missed out on a crucial concept that could significantly affect fuel consumption?

Something about it sounded fishy. For one thing, pots are heated by conduction – the direct contact of a heat source (the stove's flame) with another object (the pot). As far as I'm aware, the colour of an object makes no difference to conductive heat transfer, and adding a layer of paint between the metallic surface of the pot and the flame, I thought, could theoretically increase resistance and actually reduce efficiency.

Of course, heat transfer through radiation is another matter – we all know that black objects get hotter in the sun than white ones. Had Backpacker got their elementary physics confused?

I turned to the internet to get to the bottom of this, and discovered I was not alone in my skepticism. I found several rebuttals to Backpacker's claims on YouTube, and a couple of tests by Hiram Cook to prove them wrong. Here is his second test, which, while not 100% scientific, clearly provesBackpacker's claims to be wildly inaccurate and misleading.

Frankly, it astounds me that a magazine, in an era in which their publication model is under threat, would print such erroneous advice. While Hiram's tests do show a slight improvement in boil times, this could equally be due to inconsistent testing conditions. I can only hope that hoards of budding ultralight backpackers didn't run out the the hardware store and coat their pots.


Further Reading
Adventures in Stoving
More information than you can throw a cat can stove at about integrated stoves (BPL membership required)

Links to Manufacturers
Boilerwerks
BushBuddy
JetBoil
Primus
Soto
Stormin Stove Systems
Snow Peak
Trail Designs
Zelph 
 

–– Updated 2017 ––