Backpacking Stove --
Canister, Alcohol, Wood Fuel
Which Do I Choose?
Now comes the time to choose a backpacking stove. You may be tempted to skip this discussion altogether thinking, “I don’t need a backpacking stove at all. I will either cook over a small fire and eliminate the weight completely or carry food that does not need to be cooked.”
This is NOT your best option for two reasons: (1) because of camp fire ring scars left on the natural environment, many heavily traveled areas ban fires of any kind. Other areas ban fires during dry periods when forest fire risk is high. (2) carrying heavy, fresh, well-hydrated food that doesn’t need to be cooked is not a weight saver.
Now that we have established the practicality of the carrying a stove, let’s discuss our options.
Four basic types are available.
First, there is a wood burner or hobo stove. This small, lightweight option has the advantage of using small twigs picked up along the trail or campsite for its fuel. The obvious disadvantage is the possible lack of small, dry twigs, especially above tree line.
A second type of backpacking stove is the alcohol burner. This is the lightest choice of the fuel-carrying types. An advantage of the alcohol burner is readily available fuel, denatured alcohol, which is widely available. Alcohol is also a very clean-burning fuel. The two main disadvantages to this type of backpacking stove are the inability to control the flame and the increased amount of time and fuel required to bring water to a boil. Efficiency of this model can be increased with the use of a heat reflector and windscreen.
Canister backpacking stoves are a good choice when flame control is desired. They are fuel efficient, easy to operate and boil water quickly. Their design consists of a burner which screws onto a fuel canister containing compressed propane or butane. The disadvantages of canister models include the inability to tell how much fuel remains in the canister, the fact that canisters are not as readily available as other fuel sources (burners are specific and not all canisters fit all stoves) and you must pack out the empty canister. Canister stoves don’t work well in very cold temperatures. This can be overcome by sleeping with the canister inside your bag or warming it inside your jacket before use. However, canister stoves are a good choice for high altitudes.
The final option is the liquid fuel burner which primarily burns white gas. However, many are designed to burn a wide variety of fuels such as kerosene or unleaded gas right from your vehicle gas tank. This is a significant advantage when traveling abroad where you may be uncertain of fuel availability and where you cannot take your compressed fuel canisters on an airplane.
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Among liquid gas burners, a variety of options exist. For instance, some operate only wide open, some simmer nicely, some have burners small enough to fit in your pocket. Some are even designed with a self-cleaning feature requiring only a brisk shake to keep the jets open. You will need to purchase a separate fuel bottle. Bottles come in different sizes allowing you to take only as much fuel as you need, thereby controlling the weight somewhat. This model works very well at high elevations and cold temperatures do not present a problem. The major disadvantage of a liquid gas burners is weight, frequently coming in a little over a pound.The Right Choice
Evaluation and experimentation will likely yield a satisfactory choice of a backpacking stove for you. As with many gear choices the only “right” choice is the one that suits your particular needs and desires.
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