Updated on June 23, 2015
Choosing a Stove: Fuel
By now you have probably read about at least a few different fuel types available in backpacking stoves. You may be a little overwhelmed by all of the comparisons and having trouble sorting out your options. In the future we will go in to detail, but for right now let’s overview the fuel types and their general characteristics. In the end there is not best option; the decision will hinge on the type of trips you go on and what you’re comfortable with.
White Gas (and Multi-fuel) Stoves
Outside of the camping world white gas is more commonly known as naptha. Naptha is also the stuff the ubiquitous Zippo lighters are filled with. Normal camp stove fuel has always worked just fine for me in stoves, lighters, and lanterns.
Multi-fuel stoves are generally designed to run on white gas and other petroleum fuels such as kerosene, gasoline, stoddard solvent, aviation gas, and diesel.
This is likely your heaviest option. The stoves have more moving parts than other options and the fuel requires special bottles capable of being pressurized. White gas can also make a mess of things if it leaks and some stoves are finicky to prime and get going. Multi-fuel stoves also tend to be either on or off with little fine heat control.
They do have the highest heat output of these options and work well in both cold temperatures and at altitude. You will find the main downsides to be weight and needing to carry a volatile fuel. But, if you go with a multi-fuel stove you should be able to resupply anywhere.
Some stoves in this class worth consideration are the Optimus Nova (multi-fuel), MSR XGK-EX (multi-fuel), MSR Dragonfly. The Dragonfly; while white gas only, is supposed to have far superior heat adjustment than the others.
This is probably probably the second most common type of backpacking stove. Canister stoves run on pre-filled iso-butane containers. This is usually the lightest weight stove and puts out considerable heat. A major drawback is fuel availability; you will need to find a camping store to purchase more fuel. You will however find them clean, easy to light, and reliable.
There are fewer moving parts to break than commonly found on white gas stoves. A few quality stoves for you to consider in this class are MSR Pocket Rocket, Snow Peak LiteMax, and the popular Jetboil System.
Fuel Tab Stoves
An ultralight option with plenty of do-it-yourself potential is the solid fuel tab stoves. at the very simplest at these are a pot-stand with a tray to hold the fuel tab. These stoves are cheap reliable and will light in any conditions. You will need to shelter the stoves from the wind and heat out put is lower than your options above. Your biggest complaint with these will be the thick soot deposited on your expensive titanium cookware.
The most common tab stove you will find is the Pocket Stove from Esbit. You will find them at nearly every camping store. Vargo’s dual-fuel Titanium Triad XE stove mentioned in the next section is another option.
These are another ultralight option with considerable backing from the do-it-yourself crowd. You will find a multitude of options for making these from all types and shapes of cans and tins. The different types of designs include open flame, updraft, side burner, open jet, side burner jet, and pressurized jet. Alcohol stoves are and will be and article unto themselves.
Alcohol stoves burn clean, are ultralight, use cheap fuel, generally have no moving parts, and can be made from trash. On the downside a windscreen is definitely required, heat output is low, and they do not operate well at cold temperatures.
While many Alcohol stoves are homemade, there are several commercial options worth noting. Vargo Outdoors makes both a Titanium Alcohol Stove and a Titanium Alcohol/Fuel Tab Stove. Zelph-Stoves have a number of options made from thick aluminum energy drink bottles. Stay tuned for more on DIY alcohol stove in the future.
The last fuel type we will cover happens to be the original; good old fashioned wood. As with alcohol stoves; you will find several different types of backpacking wood stoves. The single best aspect of the wood stove is eliminating your need to carry fuel. On short trips this may not make a big difference, but on long trips you will start to lower your pack weight.
The simplest type is the “hobo stove” which is little more than a tin can with air holes punched in it to encourage combustion. These stoves are usually homemade and work okay, but tend to create significant smoke and soot.
The second simplest wood stove that you will find are the various folding models. Vargo Outdoors makes a folding hexagonal stove fashioned from their usual titanium. We plan to get one of these in for testing when time allows.
Several commercial and DIY version of forced air stoves exist and are often referred to as “Zip Stoves.” They are efficient and simple to operate, but are generally heavy and require batteries. I generally try to avoid gear that needs batteries; mostly out of principle.
Last you will find wood gassifier or simply wood gas stoves. These tend to be the most efficient and when constructed right are easy to use. My favorite model is the Bushbuddy Ultra made by Fritz Handel out of his remote home in British Columbia. A great interview with Fritz can be found on HikeitLikeit.com. The Bushbuddy deserves it’s own article and you can look forward to a thorough review in the future. As of the time of writing the Bushbuddy is currently sold out on Fritz’ website, but the original Bushbuddy design is now being crafted as the Trekker by the Nomadic Stove Company in the USA.
You will probably end up with more than one stove for the various types of trips you enjoy. For longer trips I have found the the Bushbuddy Ultra to be the best all around stove; but be careful because not all parks allow wood stoves. For extremely cold conditions where I need to melt my drinking water I would probably go with a white gas stove. If you are cooking meals that requires exact temperature controls the canister stoves will start to look the most popular. For those using the freezer bag cooking method and wanting to travel ultra-light for the weekend; alcohol stoves are probably the way to go.
As you can see this is not a “one size fits all” situation. If this is your first backpacking stove; pick the one that is best suited to your current excursions.