September 30, 2021 9 min read

A crucial part of each backpacking trip happens before you even leave your house: and that’s packing. You’ll spend time filling out a gear checklist for your trip, sourcing the right items, testing them, and, finally, making sure they fit into your pack. While some backpackers may enjoy this process more than others, it’s necessary for all of us. 

One of the most important things you’ll pack is what you plan to use to cook your meals. If you’re without a way to heat up your food, you’ll be stuck munching on the same trail mix and jerky for every meal. And, you’ll miss out on some delicious, high-carb meals (chili mac, anyone?) that will help you power through the multiple long trail days ahead. What we’re trying to say is, getting a good backpacking stove is an essential part of preparing for any multiple-day backpacking trip.

But don’t worry; we’ve got you. In this article, we’ll discuss: 

Let’s get to it.

What is a Backpacking Stove?

One of the biggest challenges you’ll face when backpacking is fitting all your gear into your pack. Traditional camping gear—bulky tents, heavy sleeping bags, and large coolers—are the exact opposite of what you need, and the same goes for that heavy Coleman camping stove you see at the store.

Fortunately, there are companies dedicated to making the lightest and most durable gear for backpackers—synthetic sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and you guessed it, stoves. Backpacking stoves, as opposed to camping stoves, are smaller, tougher, and very efficient at heating water for instant meals, coffee, and soups. 

But what really sets backpacking stoves apart from the rest of the outdoor-stove pack, is that they essentially have one job: to boil water. They’re not built to act as a griddle for your eggs and bacon. No backpacker in their right mind would bring fresh bacon 25 miles into the backcountry. Instead, backpackers typically use dehydrated meal pouches that are cooked by pouring boiling water directly into the pouch. Soup mixes are also a backpacking favorite and, again, heating water is all that’s needed to make them. 

Most backpacking stoves can boil a cup of water in under two minutes, and a full liter of water in under 5 minutes. This means you can have lunch or dinner ready within 10 minutes of stopping, which is incredibly fast compared to building a fire or setting up a propane grill. 

How Do Backpacking Stoves Work?

Backpacking stoves, almost invariably, use white gas canisters. This liquid fuel, a mixture of propane and isobutane, burns very hot and is very wind-resistant. A small valve releases the gas and it’s ready for ignition (either from an ignition button or a match). 

White gas comes in small canisters that can burn for about three hours each. That means one or two 8-ounce canisters can supply all the heat you need to eat like royalty for a weeklong backpacking trip. They’re the most efficient type of cooking system in terms of weight and cooking power/longevity.

How to Choose a Backpacking Stove

Backpacking stoves are, in many ways, identical. They use the same gas canisters (unless you get an alternative stove, which we’ll discuss below) and they perform the same basic function. That might lead you to conclude that you can pick any stove and be more or less satisfied. And, there is some truth to that statement. Almost any stove you see will be passable at a minimum.

However, there are some things you should consider when looking for a backpacking stove, beyond the basics. Knowing about their different features will help you select a stove that is a great fit for you, instead of just getting a stove that is “good enough.” 

Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself when shopping for a backpacking stove: 

Is it Integrated or Non-Integrated?

There are two types of backpacking stoves: integrated (meaning they include a pot and are an “all-in-one” system) and non-integrated (just the screw for the canister, valve, and platform to hold the pot). Which you choose is perhaps the most important thing for you to consider when getting a backpacking stove.

The “pot” is exactly what it sounds like: a small pot for boiling water. Pots for backpacking stoves are usually small, with a capacity of one liter or less. The pot sits above the flame and attaches to the stove, and is essential to the process. Some stoves, such as the JetBoil Flash (one of the most popular models on the market), are a complete cooking system. They come with an insulated pot and ignition button, and certain models even have a built-in French press for your coffee. 

Not every backpacking stove comes with a pot, however. These “non-integrated” stoves, such as the MSR PocketRocket, are just small pieces of metal that ignites the flame and channels it toward the pot, with a small platform that you can rest the pot on. The pot would have to be purchased separately.

So, which should you choose? The complete cooking system or the buy separately model? It’s up to your preference, but integrated stoves are particularly great for shorter trips (less than 5 days) or for people who have simple cooking needs (i.e., rehydrated meals and soup mixes only). 

If you want to travel ultralight, your best bet might be to look for a non-integrated stove and then shop separately for the lightest pot you can find. Similarly, if you like to make your backpacking meals a little more gourmet, you may want to get a stove with no pot and shop for 2-3 different pots that you can use to cook more complex meals.

Does it Have an Ignition Button?

Ignition buttons are very convenient features on a backpacking stove. Just like the ignition on a gas stove or grill at your home, these ignition buttons create a spark that gets the fire going. If your backpacking stove doesn’t have an ignition button, you have to light it with matches. 

Match-lit stoves aren’t necessarily a bad thing; they’re lighter and cheaper than stoves with an ignition button. Just make sure that, before you buy, you know what type of ignition the stove you’re considering has. The last thing you want is to be 18-miles deep in the wilderness and discover you don’t have the matches you need.

Does it Have Flame Control?

Every stove has an ignition that gets the fire started, but not every stove gives you control over the strength of the flame. The JetBoil Flash, for instance, is very easy to use, but its controls are limited to either “all flame” or “no flame.” MSR’s stoves, however, let you control the flame so that you can cook at different temperatures rather than just boil. 

If you’re cooking a true meal on the trail, a stove with flame control is a must-have. Controlling the flame means you control the cooking temperature, a necessary feature for people who need to do more than simple boiling. Cooking eggs, bacon, or rice? You best get a stove with flame control.

How Much Does it Weigh?

The heavier your pack is, the more energy you’ll spend hiking. That, in turn, means you need more food and more breaks. Traveling lighter is more efficient, preserves your knees on long hikes, and means you won’t be quite as tired. Because it’s made of solid metal, your backpacking stove will be one of the densest things you pack.

Most stoves aren’t very heavy at all, but there is still a big difference between the 25-gram BRS 300T and the 370-gram JetBoil Flash. If you’re not concerned with weight differences like this, you’re probably better off with an integrated cooking system. However, if you’re trying to travel ultralight, your backpacking stove is one item where you can save a decent amount of space and weight. 

Alternative Stove Types

While gas stoves are far and away the most popular for backpackers, they aren’t your only option. Here’s a quick rundown of some alternative stove types:

  • Alcohol Stoves: These stoves are light, cheap, and quick. They use denatured alcohol as fuel and can burn for about 45 minutes before the fuel needs to be refilled. They don’t get quite as hot as gas canisters, so boiling takes a little longer. The real advantage of an alcohol stove is the flame control. It’s very easy to regulate the temperature you’re cooking at. These stoves are also great for freezing temperatures and winter backpacking because they don’t suffer from performance issues in the cold.
  • Propane Stoves: These products look and function just like gas canister stoves except for their fuel source. Instead of white gas canisters, these stoves are powered by refillable propane bottles. They’re better for short trips, camping near your car, or for people who want to cook elaborate meals. Propane lasts a long time and flame control is very easy, making propane ideal for cooking a trail feast. 
  • Wood-Burning Stoves: If you’re backpacking in an area that allows fires, a simple windscreen stove is all you need. Find some dry sticks and kindling, get a fire going, and use the windscreen to keep the flame hot and to hold your pot. These stoves, when they’re permitted, are great because they don’t require a giant campfire (small, concentrated fires are best) and they’re very cheap. 

5 Frequently Asked Questions About Backpacking Stoves

1. How Do You Use a Backpacking Stove?

Using a backpacking stove is pretty straightforward. Here are the steps:

  1. Take the cap off the gas canister and screw the stove onto the canister. Make sure that it is screwed all the way on, but not so tight that it gets stuck. 
  2. Set the pot on top of the stove and fill it with water.
  3. Open the valve on your stove. Make sure it is all the way open so that the ignition or matches will work effectively. 
  4. Strike a match and hold it near the stove to light it. If your stove has an ignition button, press it 1-3 times until the flame is lit. Most of the time, the ignition button will work the first time you press it, but it’ll take a couple of tries if it’s windy. 
  5. Get cooking!

2. Can You Take Gas Canisters on a Plane, Train, or other transports?

That, unfortunately, is a big no-no according to the TSA. You can carry your stove and empty fuel bottles (if you’re using refillable propane bottles), but there can be no gas anywhere in the system. Keep in mind, however, that each TSA agent is given authority to decide on individual scenarios and may not permit your stove or empty bottles if they suspect that there may be leftover gas. 

The best thing to do is travel with only your stove and purchase fuel at each new destination. That way, you never risk a TSA agent or other transportations employee tossing your stove before you board. 

3. Do Gas Canisters Leak After Use?

Gas canisters have an internal valve that seals the canister after you unscrew your stove. They shouldn’t leak at all, unless the internal valve is faulty. If your gas canister leaks, simply screw your stove back on and keep the stove valve shut. 

Once you’re done cooking, close the valve on your stove and make sure the flame has gone out. Then, simply unscrew the stove and put the cap back on your canister. That’s all there is to it.

4. How Many Gas Canisters Do I Need?

As mentioned, one 8-ounce canister should burn for about 3 hours. It won’t burn quite as long in cold weather, but the performance won’t be affected drastically unless you’re backpacking in 20-below weather. The number of canisters you bring on a backpacking trip depends heavily on how much you cook, the way you cook, who you’re traveling with, and how long you’re going to be out. 

Take this scenario, for example: You’re backpacking for 7 days, 6 nights and plan to boil water for dehydrated meals twice a day, make coffee once a day, and you’re going solo (or your group members have their own stoves). You’d likely go through 1.5 canisters at most, since you’d only use the stove 15-30 minutes a day (5-10 minutes per use, depending on how long you’re actually cooking). That would translate to a total of 1.5 to 3.5 hours of cooking over the course of the trip. 

If you cook more elaborate meals, are staying out longer, or are cooking for more than just yourself, you’d need to bring more gas canisters. Most trips, though, are shorter and would only require a single 8-ounce canister. 

5. When Should I Use a Backpacking Stove vs. a Campfire or Grill?

So, what about that daydream you have about cooking around the campfire with your friends, stars overhead? While it makes for a great photo op, it’s not the best way to make dinner in the wilderness, and in many places, it’s strictly forbidden. In many national parks, especially in western American where wildfires are common and devastating, campfires are not an option.

If you’re at a campground (the term the National Parks Service uses to describe large camping areas that you can drive to with your car), you will usually be able to have a campfire. If not, there are almost always charcoal grills on the campground, or you’re welcome to bring your own. In those situations, it’s more fun to bring a whole spread of delicious and grillable foods. 

Once you get beyond the parking lot-adjacent campgrounds, however, fires are going to be less and less reasonable. Think about it: who wants to lug a cord of firewood to their backcountry campsite? That’s why a good camping stove is a must-have: It is your only good option for heating your food deep in the wilderness. 

Enjoying Hot Meals on the Trail with Your Backpacking Stove

Getting the right backpacking stove is crucial to your enjoyment of a trip into the wilderness. There’s nothing like a hot coffee in the morning or a hot meal at night to really set the mood for those long hours of hiking. As long as you understand the different features and qualities of backpacking stoves, you’ll be able to choose one that fits your needs without having to constantly second guess yourself. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to check out our backpacking tents, replacement parts, and down sleeping bags!

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