Ultralight Backpacking Stove Guide

Ultralight backpacking Stove Guide

Ultralight backpackers and thru-hikers have a lot of different options available when it comes to picking a lightweight backpacking and camping stove. Here are the pros and cons of using alcohol stoves, canister stoves, solid fuel stoves, and wood stoves.

Ultralight Alcohol Stoves

Alcohol stoves are popular with ultralight backpackers and thru-hikers because they burn denatured alcohol (called meths in the UK), which is inexpensive and widely available in most trail towns, drug, stores, or hardware stores. The simplest alcohol stove is a cat food can with holes punched around the sides for airflow. You simply pour some alcohol into the can, light it with a match or lighter, and it’s on, ready to use. Once lit, it can be very difficult to see the flame in an alcohol stove, since it’s nearly invisible in daylight and some caution is required so you don’t burn a hand.

Vargo Titanium Triad XE Alcohol Stove
For best performance, alcohol stoves need a windscreen

For cooking, alcohol stoves are best used for boiling water which is added to dehydrated freezer bag meals or Mountain House-style camping meals, although some alcohol stoves are available with simmer rings so you can cook with them over a low flame. The downside of using an alcohol stove is that it is very sensitive to wind and must be used with a windscreen which can be awkward to pack. Alcohol fuel is also less powerful than most other types of fuel and it takes a relatively long time to boil two cups of water (7-10 minutes).

It should also be noted that alcohol stoves have been banned in many areas in the United States that have high fire danger, since they are easily tipped over (along with your dinner), spilling fuel and potentially causing a fire. They have been largely replaced by canister stoves in those areas because they are more stable and you can turn off a canister stove easily, something that is a little harder with an alcohol stove since there is no control value.

The Bottom Line: The fuel for an alcohol stove is inexpensive and easy to find in small trail towns that cater to hikers for resupply. 

Recommended Alcohol Stoves

Ultralight Canister Stoves

Soto Windmaster Canister Stove
Soto Windmaster Canister Stove

Canister stoves have two main components, a stove head and a pre-filled pressurized fuel canister that you can buy at many outdoor stores. Some models, like those from Jetboil, also have an integrated pot that is easily packable and burns very efficiently, letting you stretch your fuel on longer hikes. Unlike denatured alcohol, canister stove fuel burns very hot and can quickly bring two cups of water to a boil in 4-5 minutes. Canister stoves also have the ability to simmer a meal by regulating how much fuel is fed to the burner.

The Jetboil Stash is a very efficient stove the comes with a enhanced cooking pot that saves fuel.
The Jetboil Stash is a very efficient stove that comes with an enhanced cooking pot that saves fuel.

Canister stoves are also much less susceptible to wind than alcohol stoves and are usually used without a windscreen because the gas inside them is released under pressure. The downside of using a canister stove is that they can be hard to resupply on long hikes in more rural areas that don’t have REI or EMS, although they’re often readily available in trail towns. While the stove-to-canister connection is standardized in the US using something called a Lindal valve, you may come across canisters in other countries, particularly in Europe, with are not compatible and require a bayonet-style connection.

The Kovea Spider stove can burn liquid fuel from a canister that's been turned upside down.
The Kovea Spider stove can burn liquid fuel from a canister that’s been turned upside down.

The total burn time for a small canister is also about an hour or less, making it a more appropriate cook system for shorter hikes that are 5-6 days in duration depending on your frequency of use. It is however difficult to use an upright canister stove below 20 degrees Fahrenheit because the outdoor temperature is too cold to let the gas in the canister vaporize. There is a special type of canister stove that can burn canister fuel in its liquid state when the canister is turned upside down. Called an inverted canister stove, it can operate down to about t0 degrees F making it more suitable for colder winter use.

The Bottom Line: Canister stoves cook food quickly, many can simmer meals, and are an excellent option for shorter trips or frequent resupplies. 

Recommended Canister Stoves

Solid Fuel Tablets and Stoves

Esbit (Solid Fuel) stoves are incredibly simple and ultralight
Esbit (Solid Fuel) stoves are incredibly simple and ultralight. You can use metal bottle cap if you want.

Solid fuel tablets were developed in the 1930s to provide soldiers with a smokeless, high-energy fuel for heating food rations. The most popular type of solid fuel, called ESBIT, is packaged in 0.5-ounce tablets which burn for 12 minutes and provide enough fuel to boil 16 ounces of water. Solid fuel tablets require a very simple stove to use, often with a built-in windscreen to improve fuel efficiency.

Like alcohol, solid fuel is best used for boiling water to rehydrate dried foods, although some stoves provide you with the ability to simmer or even bake with ESBIT tablets. The nice about solid fuel cubes like ESBIT is that you only need to bring the fuel you need on a trip and no more. This is usually pretty easy to guess by counting up the number of hot meals or drinks you want.

As Esbit Cube burning in a combination pot stand:wind screen.
As Esbit Cube burning in a combination pot stand:wind screen.

The downside of solid fuel tablets is that they can be difficult to resupply in small trail towns and they can leave an oily residue on the bottom of your cook pot.

The Bottom Line: Solid Fuel/Esbit Tablets are best for short trips where you don’t need to resupply. 

Recommended Solid Fuel Stoves

Wood Stoves

The QiWiz Firefly UL has a refueling port in that you can feed wood into while the stove is alight
The QiWiz Firefly UL has a refueling port in that you can feed wood into while the stove is alight

Wood stoves are a great camping stove option if you are camping and hiking in areas that permit wood fires, downed wood is readily available, and the weather is fairly dry. Wood stoves consist of a square or can-like firebox with vents to pull in oxygen. You fill them up with small sticks the thickness of your finger, light them from the bottom or top, and stack a pot on top to boil water or cook a meal. Simmering is made possible by bringing water to a boil and then feeding the flame with just enough wood to keep the water in your pot boiling slightly.

Fuel is added to can-based wood stoves from the top and burns down
Fuel is added to can-based wood stoves from the top and burns down

The advantage of using a wood stove is that you don’t need to carry fuel because you can find it all around you. The disadvantage of wood stoves is that it can rain and you need to carry an alternative fuel like ESBIT to cook with or eat stoveless meals.

The Bottom Line: Wood stoves are great if you want to minimize the fuel you carry and enjoy having a fire at night, but don’t want the overhead of starting a campfire.

Recommended Wood Stoves

Wrap Up

It is possible to backpack without a stove, either by eating foods that don’t require cooking or by cold soaking your meals. Those are both viable ways to eat that can save you a lot of gear weight. I recommend trying them before you decide to forego stove use. Personally, I like having a hot meal at least once a day but the key to ultralight backpacking is self-experimentation, so try it out.

When it comes to deciding between the above-mentioned stove types, external factors do play a significant role in the selection such as fire bans and fuel availability on longer treks. When choosing between the different options give some thought to your complete cooking system and how it will all fit together when packed. For example, will you always eat out of your cook pot and will your fuel source, utensils, and windscreen fit inside your cook pot when packed? That’s many some people prefer using a Jetboil or an MSR Windburner because they pack up so well.

The lightest stove options, by far, are using a wood stove and solid fuel, often together since solid fuel is a good backup if it rains. But they’re also slower and a little messier, with soot and ash, which is probably why they’re the least popular.

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