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Camp Stove Primer

Posted by Darren Bush on 3/23/2012 to Camping Skills & Tips

Cooking outside has been long associated with a cheery campfire. While an occasional campfire in places with plentiful wood is fine, as more and more people head out, the idea of Leave No Trace camping has caught on. Fires have a substantial impact on the environment, so more and more people are turning to camp stoves.

Liquid Fuel or Canister?

Stoves are essentially divided into two kinds – liquid fuel and canister. Liquid fuel stoves range in size from the three-burner giant Coleman you grandfather used with his cast iron skillet to make pancakes (those were the days, no?) to lightweight backpacking stoves that weigh next to nothing. Canister stoves would be the same, I guess, if you consider a 15-pound propane tank a canister. We’ll be talking about stoves that come in at a pound or less, so the Coleman two-burner is not included in the comparison.

Trail stoves are defined by their size (small) and weight (light). Both canister and liquid fuel stoves have advantages and disadvantages. Liquid fuel camp stoves do not require you to carry spent canisters (extra weight) but you do carry empty fuel bottles. Liquid fuel is usually less expensive per ounce than canister fuel, which can be quite expensive in the far reaches of the universe. Face it, a guy on the AT can charge whatever he wants for a canister because you’ll pay it if you need it. Travelling with canisters on airplanes was in days past a faux pas. Now it can land you in jail.

I usually advise people to use canister fuel for shorter trips and for trips around water, as a capful of white gas can pollute 1,000 gallons of water. Spill while filling your stove on the thin soil of the Precambrian shield and you’re send your fuel straight to the water. For longer trips or trips where you fly, I recommend liquid fuel stoves. One thing — if your stove even SMELLS like gas they’ll not let you fly with it. If you’re going to the Cascades or the Sierras for a two-week trip, buy a new stove. It’s worth it to avoid the hassle at the warehouse, and chances are your brother or sister or friend needs your old one anyway.

The Dragonfly

The Dragonfly is the Swiss Army Knife of liquid fuel stoves. It burns almost anything and is field serviceable. It’s one of the more expensive stoves but it works in almost all conditions from winter camping to tropical forests. Unlike many expedition stoves, the Dragonfly can simmer. The XGK is a hotter stove, but it has two speeds — “off” and “blowtorch.”

If you don’t need anything as hard-core as the Dragonfly but like the folding concept, the WhisperLite Shakerjet is a similar stove that burns only white gas, and has a self-cleaning nozzle (invert and shake).

WhisperLite (both varieties)

The WhisperLite Internationale which burns white gas, kerosene (with a jetting change) and unleaded automobile fuel. This one’s a good choice for lightweight motorcycle campers (like me) as I always have a supply of gasoline between my knees.

If you like the folding stove but want to cook with a canister, the Rapidfire is basically a Whisperlight that runs off MSR fuel canisters. It’s great because it’s fast to set up and go. Like all canister stoves, it requires a little warming in the cold weather.

The Pocket Rocket

The other canister stove from MSR is the Pocket Rocket, which is the smallest stove for the person who travels ultralight. It works great as a back-up stove too, which is what I use it for on longer trips. It’s also nice to have instant heat when you need to get water boiling for the kids who need hot chocolate like a junkie needs methadone.

How do I choose a stove?

Good question. Sacrifice a black hamster by the full moon, sprinkle the blo…

No sacrifices necessary. The problem is that stove manufacturers are not necessarily dishonest, but there’s no inter-manufacturer consistency in benchmarking. In other words, if Brand A says they can boil one liter of water (a standard benchmark) in 1 minute, 12.4 seconds, the question is “from what temperature?” Start with 32 degree water and it might take longer.

The truth is (listen carefully) it really doesn’t matter. If you’re spending time out of doors and you’re worried about shaving 30 seconds off your boiling time to save fuel, you need psychological help and a different hobby. If you were going out for six months, unsupported, then you might have a case. Until then, forget it.

What you should look for in a stove depends on how you use it. Cold weather often brings out the worst in cartridge or canister stoves. Sandy beaches play games with some of the WhisperLite stoves. Some need priming. Some do not. There are a lot out there.

My advice is to buy a stove that works well with what you do most of the time. If you’re car camping or canoe camping, weight is not necessarily an issue, and you can afford a little larger burner. Normally a larger burner means better control, and if you like to cook eggs or pancakes, you won’t want a very concentrated heat spot in the middle of the pan or you’ll have black spotted pancakes. Are you a convenience nut? Hate to get white gas on your hands or in the environment? Get a stove with recyclable canisters (most are these days).

Do take noise into the equation. WhisperLites tend to be a little quieter, and some are almost silent. If you’re in doubt, fire it up and see if it obliterates all other sound. If you want absolute silence, try to find a used Trangia stove. They run off methanol and make no noise at all. It takes twice as long to boil water, but that’s a forgivable vice if you want to listen to the frogs singing to you as you cook your dinner.

The Svea 123 (a 100 year old design)

An often forgotten variable is aesthetics. I know, it’s not practical, but I have a Svea 123 from the 70s that was my Boy Scout camp stove. I think I paid $25 or so for it, and it still works. Yearly I take it out and polish the brass just because I like to. And so long as you’re not cooking omlettes, it’s a great camp stove, and it has that sound that some describe as that of a V1 rocket. It reminds me of hiking to Mount Whitney in the Sierras in California.

Hint: If you don’t have a lot of experience, try to borrow stoves from friends to see what you like and don’t like. I have about ten stoves because I keep finding orphans that need a good home.

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