Camping Stoves | Buyer’s Guide For Backpacking And Bikepacking
Essential facts and the features to look for if you're buying a camping stove for backpacking and wild camping adventures
A reliable camping stove is an absolute must on any multi-day adventures in the great outdoors. A hot, hearty and nutritious meal is not only crucial for fuelling your intrepid exploits, it’ll also boost your morale and keep your adventure spirits high. After all, no-one wants to be eating luke warm (or cold) chilli con carne out on a rainy hillside. But, with so many options out there, how on earth do you choose the right camping stove for you? Here we cut through the jargon, outline some of the most important factors to consider, and highlight the best features to look out for in a camping stove.
If you already know what you’re after then you can dive straight in to our round up of the best camping stoves currently on the market, with options from the likes of Primus, Jetboil, MSR and more.
Camping Stove Types
There are several camping stove types to consider. The main ones are:
Canister-top stoves – lightweight, packable and easy-to-use, these simple stoves consist of a burner head that screws directly onto the top of your propane-butane gas canister. You’ll need to buy a pot separately. Example – MSR Pocket Rocket 2.
Personal cooking systems – these all-in-one stove systems consist of a burner head, which screws onto a propane-butane gas canister, and an integrated cooking pot that attaches directly to the burner head. This creates a cohesive, locked-together unit, often with heat exchangers that ensure fast boiling and efficient fuel usage. Example – JetBoil Stash.
Hose-fed stoves – these stoves have a free-standing burner head that usually connects to a remote propane-butane gas canister via a braided metal hose. This approach ensures the burner head, which has its own tripod-like legs, is low-to-the-ground and very stable (rather than wobbly atop a gas canister). Sometimes you’ll need to buy a separate pot, but some burners connect to an integrated pot. Example – Primus PrimeTech 2.3L Stove
Wood-burning stoves – the choice for the bushcraft enthusiast, these stoves burn wood rather than gas, ensuring a rustic, back-to-basics cooking experience. Example – Bushcraft Essentials Bushbox LF
Alternative fuel stoves – gas stoves are easily the most common and popular these days, but alternative fuel stoves such as the Trangia Triangle still have a loyal cult following. Liquid fuel stoves run on white gas, kerosene (paraffin) or petrol and are often used for long expeditions in very cold conditions. They’re also popular on expeditions in places where replacement gas canisters might be hard to come by. Alcohol camping stoves such as the Alpkit Bruler use methylated spirits or alcohol, and multi-fuel stoves run on any of these fuels.
Whichever lightweight camping stove type you’re after, here are the main features that you need to be considering.
This is a big consideration for many campers. If you’re off on a multi-day backpacking adventure, you’ll want to keep things as light as possible – and a lightweight canister-top stove will be your best bet.
The MSR PocketRocket 2, our best buy camping stove at the moment, clocks in at just 72g, and if combined with a minimalist titanium pot will form an ultralight cooking system under 150g.
In comparison, most integrated personal cooking systems will weigh about 400g. You will get enhanced functionality for the heftier weight – but is it worth it? It really comes down to personal preference.
In terms of packability, canister-top stoves can’t be beaten for size – they’re so miniscule, they can be stashed easily into the smallest of backpack pockets or crevices. All-in-one stoves are inevitably larger, but they often pack away seamlessly with everything (including gas canister) fitting neatly into the cooking pot.
Camping Stove Boil Times and Burner Power Output
The power of a stove’s burner is measured in watts, usually ranging from about 2,000-4,000W, with 2,500W a good benchmark for three-season camping in the UK’s mountains. But, while these stats are useful to check, the effectiveness of a stove isn’t all about raw power. Numerous other factors including wind protection, heat exchange and what pot you’re using will affect all-round performance.
In general, however, the higher the burner power output, the faster water will boil for you. Many manufacturer’s state an official boil time for either 500ml or 1L of water, based on their own tests – about 4 minutes is pretty standard for 1L of water, while super-fast products such as the JetBoil Flash boast that they can boil 500ml in 100 seconds. For some this speedy approach is a game-changer; for others saving a few minutes during your wild camp isn’t important at all.
With a basic canister-top stove, lots of heat will be lost into the air as ‘waste’ rather than heating your pot of water.
Personal cooking systems claim to solve this problem through the use of heat exchangers – a waffled construction of metallic coils at the base of the pot, designed to efficiently focus heat from the burner head to the integrated pot.
Burner Head Size
The width of a stove’s burner head can vary from about 2cm to 5cm. A narrow burner head will provide an intense spot of heat, which can risk cremating food to your pan bottom if you don’t stir regularly, whereas a wider burner head will spread the flame more, thus reducing the chance of burning hotspots. If all you’ll be doing is boiling water for expedition meals, a small burner head won’t be a problem; but if you’ll be cooking more complicated meals, such as soups or pasta dishes, a broader flame with better heat distribution will help.
On canister-top stoves, the little arms upon which you place your pot are known as pan supports. Their goal is to ensure your pot is stable and doesn’t topple over when atop the gas canister. The wider the pan supports, the more stable they should be – and good pan supports will feature serrated grips that slope slightly towards the burner centre to prevent pan slippage. Longer support arms, which raise the pot higher above the burner head, can prove wobbly. Instead aim for a stove with shorter pan arms, thus keeping the pot flush to the burner head for a more stable set-up.
Personal cooking systems don’t usually feature pan supports in the same way, because the pot slots, clicks or clips onto the burner in a more integrated manner. Hose-fed stoves, on the other hand, often have very wide, stable and low-to-the-ground pan support arms, which are ideal for accommodating larger pots if you’re cooking for more than one.
Some stoves include an in-built Piezo ignition button, a method for lighting a stove with an electric charge. This is really convenient and saves time fiddling around with matches on a wind-battered mountainside. But Piezo igniters can be temperamental and if one breaks you’ll be slurping cold chicken tikka curry, so it’s always wise to carry spare matches or lighters.
Wind is the enemy of campsite cooking. It’ll blow your flame off course (if not out completely), lengthen boil times and reduce fuel efficiency. The solution is some form of wind protection.
Personal cooking systems are best for this, with the burner head and flame housed within the body of the integrated set-up, and thus offered 360-degree protection from the wind. Canister-top stoves generally don’t have in-built wind protection (although a lip on the burner can provide a little protection), meaning a separate foil windshield might be required to protect your stove.
Flame Adjustment / Regulation
Most modern stoves feature a control valve for adjusting the strength of the flame. If you’ll be cooking more complicated meals – requiring simmering or low to medium heats – a ‘regulated’ stove with precise flame adjustment will be beneficial. For water boiling only, flame adjustment is far less important, because you’ll probably only end up using the max power setting anyway.
We’ve covered all of the main stove features above, but some specialist stoves have additional and niche features. Some hose-fed stoves, for example, enable the gas canister to be turned upside down, balancing in the inverted position on flip-out legs – this approach delivers liquid fuel to the stove, which can be used effectively in sub-zero temperatures. Other nifty features to look out for include: insulating sleeves for pots, a colour change heat indictor (which tells you when your water has boiled), integrated cups, and a perforated lid that doubles as a strainer.
Decisions, Decisions, Decisions
Ask yourself these questions: am I willing to carry the extra weight in order to benefit from a faster, more efficient all-in-one cooking system? Or would I prefer a simple, no-frills stove that is extremely lightweight, but possibly a little unstable, weak in wind, and inefficient? In terms of meals, what type of cooking will I be doing – do I simply need to boil water to add to freeze-dried meals, or do I need a stove with a wider flame and simmer control for cooking fresh ingredients? And, as with all outdoors kit, do I want to splash out £100+ for an all-singing all-dancing model, or should I just settle on a budget option?
Depending on your answers, the best lightweight stove for you will vary. If being ultra-lightweight is your priority, then choose one of the miniscule, super-compact stoves that screw directly onto the gas canister. They can weigh less than 50g and be smaller than a pocket knife. Alternatively, if convenience and speed of boiling is most important to you, go for an efficient integrated system; or if you plan to cook more complicated meals, opt for a hose-connected stove with a wider burner for better spread of the flames across a larger frying pan or pot.
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