There are a bewildering number of stoves available on the market. Here we'll help you go straight to the vital statistics of stoves to aid comparison and highlight some of the features that you should be looking for.
What am I going to be using the stove for?
If you are going to be camping out of the back of a car then this article is not for you. Any reputable camping store can provide you with a cheap, hardy, easy to use stove. You need know nothing more about it than that it makes fire. If however you are going to be taking your stove climbing, up a big mountain, or trekking and want to know more, or are generally weight and functionality obsessed, then read on.
What are the 3 basic groups of stoves?
These stoves are powered by canisters filled with propane, butane, isobutane or a combination of some or all of these.
Pros - Very light weight, Burn cleanly (less cleaning of pots and stove), give instant heat, stoves are simple with less chance of breaking, they also don’t require priming (see below)
Cons - gas canisters are comparatively expensive and suffer a drop in performance when they are cold, or nearly empty at altitude, they are also often difficult to purchase in some parts of the world and cannot be transported in airplanes.
Liquid Petroleum Fuelled
These stoves have a refillable container (bottle) and transfer their contents to the burner through a tube under pressure (pressure you create using a pump handle on the neck of the container). They will often take a variety of petroleum based fuels - gasoline/petrol (often called White Gas in the US), diesel and kerosene (also called paraffin) and aviation fuel.
Pros - the fuel is cheap, the stove will often run on many different types of fuel, fuel can always be found all over the world, uses fuel more economically than other camping stoves (important if you are going to be unable to get more fuel easily)
Cons - noisy, needs frequent cleaning, leaves your pans dirty, burners are heavier than the gas burners.
Heat Exchangers - Stoves like the Jetboil PCS and MSR Reactor have built in heat exchangers. The exchanger is made from folded metal that goes on the bottom of a cooking pot, next to the flame of the stove. It causes the heat from the flame to be spread over the whole base of the cooking pot. This stops the heat from being in one place on the pot only and lowers boil/melt times. It often also acts as a partial windshield.
Exchangers can also be bought or made to go on the outside of cooking pots - XPD Heat Exchanger
Dual Gas and Liquid Petroleum Fuelled
This last group of stoves has a collar that allows the use of both the previously mentioned types of fuel (the Primus Omni Fuel Stove is the classic example). These stoves offer you the best of both worlds. The down sides are that you are limited to stoves with the fuel tube system which separates the burner from fuel source by a pipe which weighs a little more. Some people have also been known to accuse these dual stoves of less reliability than their single fuel type counterparts.
How does each type of stove work?
Gas stoves - Screw on the gas can, turn valve which releases the gas and light it. The valve can be used to let out more gas faster or slower and this increases or decreases the heat output. Simple.
Liquid Petroleum stoves (see instructions for each individual stove) - Pump prime the fuel bottle. Release the valve on the stove to allow some of the fuel to bubble through onto the priming pad/wick. Turn off the valve and light the pad. This will heat the burner of the stove and the pre heat pipe that the fuel comes to the stove in. This turns the fuel to a gas and after a minute when you turn on the stove it will be running on the vapour from the fuel and not the fuel itself. When this happens it will make a noise like a harrier jump jet and be ready for use.
How is performance in stoves measured?
It is very difficult to make an accurate comparison of stoves in terms of energy output. Boil times, BTU's (British Thermal Units), Watts are all used but this only tells you so much. If there are two stoves that give out the same amount of BTU's and one of them has a way of resisting the wind then obviously in the mountains this stove will be more efficient. Lab tests only show you so much.
One British Thermal Unit is defined as the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of liquid water by one degree from 60° to 61° Fahrenheit at a constant pressure of one atmosphere. This is the closest there is to a universally recognised way of measuring heat output from a stove. Boil times are notoriously unreliable. It's worth looking at a stoves features and then making a decision based on these and the manufacturer stats for the stove.
Obviously you want your stove to be light. However it is worth thinking about which part of the world you'll be going to. For a trip to the Alps the canister gas stoves make more sense. For a trip to the greater ranges petrol based stoves are more practical as you will be able to get the fuel much more easily.
How important is fuel?
To provide optimum performance in cold or at altitude butane or isobutene is normally mixed with up to 30% propane. The propane helps force out the lighter weight butane gas. Butane can be stored at a lower psi which keeps your gas cylinder lighter but butane's performance is affected by a drop in canister pressure bought on by the cold (hence the propane mix). If you are going into the mountains you should carry canisters with a combination of gases. Cheap canisters use worse gas mixtures to keep costs down because most people using the canisters will not need to cook in minus 20 degrees or at 4000m. Read what it says on the canisters about the gas combinations.
The higher the octane of the fuel the more efficient the stove will be. Some stoves will accept more fuel types than others so it's worth checking the small print to see what the stove is capable of running on (remember that kerosene and paraffin are the same thing). There are legends a plenty regarding what people have run their stoves on - everything from nail varnish to peanut oil through to vodka. Whatever you use, remember that you'll have to clean the stove afterwards.
Dirty Fuel - Dirty fuel will make your stove inefficient. It will make cleaning your stove more necessary. Stripping and rebuilding your stove and possibly replacing parts in obscure parts of the world could cause many problems. Using cloth (or even a proper funnel filter) to filter your fuel if it looks like it might be very dirty is a good idea.
Priming Paste - at very high altitude or in very cold conditions this might be needed as the normal priming pad/wick with fuel combination can not get the whole stove and fuel line hot enough
What else can I do to make gas canisters more efficient?
Keep them warm. Put them in your jacket before you use them. You can also periodically rotate two cylinders from stove to jacket as you cook which will maintain better stove ouput.
Insulate the stove from the ground (especially if cooking on ice and snow) as this will reduce the canisters efficiency. Stove bases, or simply putting your stove on anything that wont melt is a good idea.
Stove Bases - These can be invaluable in certain circumstances though the minute you decide to cut down your weight they'll be the first thing to go. A base will keep the stove off the snow (if it's a canister stove this means that you increase the efficiency of the cylinder) and stop your stove sinking into the snow (which can be a serious problem with Liquid Petroleum stoves. With tiny stoves it helps with stability - Trillim Stove Base
Invert the gas cylinder. Great if your stove has a gas hose and the cylinder does not just screw onto the bottom of the burner. This means you can just turn your gas cylinder up side down without affecting the burner. Canister pressure now becomes largely irrelevant and should remain constant right to the end of the can. Some stoves made by Coleman and MSR already have mounts for gas canisters that invert them.
Legend has it that those with a safety fifth mentality have, in the past, put copper tubing that goes from the stove flame to wrap around the gas canister, transferring some of the heat from the flame to the can. Obvious hazards with this system if done incorrectly include blowing up the gas canister - not recommended.
Hand warmers around the gas can - it's been tried and doesn't really work
Stove Heads - Wider the better. Narrow burner head focuses all the heat on one spot which is Ok for boiling and melting snow but is less use for cooking. All it tends to do is weld a one inch round circle of food to the bottom of the pan. This is more of an issue with butane/propane stoves which sometimes have a very narrow head.
It's beyond the scope of this article to go into hanging stoves in depth. They are however very useful in certain circumstances. On alpine climbs you might not have the option of putting your stove down anywhere! The same applies to big wall climbing. In a tent a hanging stove means that in cramped conditions your food won't get knocked over. Hanging stoves always have a built in wind shield and are usually more efficient. The Jetboil hanging stove kit is one of the better commercially available models, however it is very small. If you want anything bigger you may have to make it yourself.
What else is there to consider?
Cutlery - for the really weight obsessed then there are folding micro sporks made from titanium. For everyone else there's the kitchen drawer.
Fire - You'll need to be able to light your stove in all weather conditions. Some stoves come with a push button Piezo ignition system built in. Do not rely solely on this! Every member of your group/party should have a lighter and waterproof lifeboat matches (which will always light).
Location: Mongolia © James Lawton
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