First, there are six main types of gas canisters out there, only four of which are really appropriate for use in backpacking. The six are:
1. The heavy steel, typically green, Coleman type 16.4 oz/465g 100% propane canisters. These are great for car camping, but are generally too heavy and bulky for backpacking.
2. The tall steel cylindrical canisters that look like a traditional can of hair spray. These canisters contain, typically, 100% butane. These canisters are frequently used by the restaurant industry, particularly for tableside cooking. These "long" butane cans have a "bayonet" connector that protrudes out of the canister's valve. This "bayonet" is exposed and therefore vulnerable to accidental discharge or damage. These to my mind have an inferior connector that is not robust enough for back country use although in some areas people do use them, particularly in Asia. They are cheap, I will say that for them.
OK, so the first two really aren't for backpacking. Let's get to the backpacking appropriate ones:
3. The dome shaped canisters with a threaded connector.
4. The dome shaped canisters with a smooth connector.
5. The dome shaped canisters with a dimple in the top.
The dome shaped canisters with a threaded connector are the standard canister for backpacking in the US, UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Japan (and probably a few other places). They're not unknown elsewhere, but they're not necessarily standard.
The dome shaped canisters with a smooth connector is the Camping Gaz type connector. This is the standard in Europe. Other types of canisters may be available, but they generally won't be as easy to find if you can find them at all.
The dome shaped, backpacking packing canisters with a dimple in the top are an older type of canister but are still the standard some areas including many parts of Eastern Europe, South America, the Middle East, and Africa. These are piercable canisters. The stove has a sharp piece of metal on it. When you attach the canister to the stove, the sharp piece of metal forces itself through the top of the canister, puncturing a hole in the canister. The canister is then locked into place. Once the canister is attached to the stove, you cannot remove it until it is empty (unless you want flammable gas spewing everywhere). This type of canister has been blamed for a number of accidents, and many countries have banned or have tried to ban them. This type of canister is not recommended. If the canister connection works loose, you could have a real disaster on your hands. Avoid this type if you can, but be aware this is all that is available in some localities.
6. Lastly, there is the Coleman Powermax canister. This is a cylindrical, silver colored canister. One end of the canister is rounded and has a non-threaded connector on it. If you look closely at the connector, you'll see that the connector is hexagonal around the middle. These canisters are actually a better canister than the standard dome shaped canisters, but they are not as widely available, particularly outside the US. In addition, they require a specialized stove that has a matching connector. These canisters will work in all conditions but are especially good in cold weather because they are liquid feed canisters. Update November, 2011 on Powermax Canisters
See my earlier post on Winter Gas Choices for more on liquid feed gas stoves.
As I'm sure you've realized by now, not all canisters are available in all places, and in many areas no canisters of any type will be available. If you plan to use your canister stove when you travel, do your homework. Make sure the canisters you need are available in the area you are going to.
Generally all of the threaded dome shaped canisters are interchangeable. Yes, I know that MSR says you should only use MSR canisters with MSR stoves and that JetBoil says you should only use JetBoil canisters with JetBoil stoves. That's a bunch of bull. They're interchangeable. Maybe you'd have some problems if you bought some cheap brand in a remote country, but all of the ones sold here in the US have a standard 7/16ths UNEF thread and are interchangeable. Where I live, Snow Peak is generally the cheapest and Coleman is generally the most expensive -- except at Walmart where Coleman gas is a real bargain at $4.88 for the 7.5oz canister. The brand you get for warm weather use doesn't make much difference. I usually buy whatever is cheapest.
The newer orange label Coleman canisters do not work with many brands of stoves. The older green label Coleman canisters typically have worked fine.
I've now broken out my discussion of which brands are best for cold weather into a separate post. Please see What's the Best Brand of Gas for Cold Weather? for further information.
Related articles and posts:
- What's the Best Gas for Cold Weather?
- How Cold Can I Run My Gas Stove?
- Gas Blends and Cold Weather Performance. (Why not just use propane?)
- Stoves For Cold Weather I (Upright canister stoves) -- Seattle Backpacker's Magazine
- Stoves for Cold Weather II (Inverted canister stoves) -- Seattle Backpacker's Magazine