Friday, November 25, 2011

What's the Best Brand of Gas for Cold Weather?

For warm weather (above 50°F/10°C), it doesn't much matter what brand of gas you buy.

The one exception to the above is Coleman gas canisters. At least for the Coleman canisters with the orange label, Coleman canisters do not work consistently with many brands of stoves.  You can however use Coleman canisters which are very cheap at Walmart to refill other canisters.  See:  Refilling Backpacking Canisters II.

NOTE:  This post was last updated on 11 April 2017.

For cold weather, the brand of gas you buy does make a difference.  Typically, gas canisters contain some blend of propane mixed with either "plain" butane (n-butane) or isobutane. Some canister brands contain all three gasses.  For cold weather use, you generally want a canister with as little n-butane as possible.  Even though propane is the best cold weather gas, I'd take a canister with 10% propane and 90% isobutane over a canister with 30% propane and 70% n-butane.  Why?  Because the propane will burn off at a faster rate than the n-butane, leaving you with nothing but n-butane toward the end of your canister.  Butane is a poor performer in cold weather.
Frozen lakes and snow, Sierra Nevada Mountains, June 2014
Why is butane a poor cold weather performer?  Why do we use blended gas?  Why don't we just use 100% propane?  That's all covered in my post on Gas Blends and Cold Weather Performance.

How can we cope with cold weather?  For more info on canister stoves in cold weather, see:  Gas Stoves in Cold Weather – Regulator Valves and Inverted Canisters
A frozen lake, Sierra Nevada Mountains, June 2014
What companies have got the best blend?  I don't have all the data, but here below is what I have.  This data is for the United States of America.  Brands and blends available elsewhere may vary.

  • Olicamp Rocketfuel is the best cold weather blend available in North America – at least based on the label.  It has 75% isobutane and 25% propane.  It's performance will not be radically better than an 80/20 mix, but Olicamp's 75/25 is a slightly better mix – if it is pure.  Any time there is isobutane, there will always be a certain percentage of plain n-butane present as well.  Here, quality control is essential.  How committed is Olicamp to quality control?  I don't know, but generally Olicamp Rocket Fuel's reputation is good.  Olicamp specifically advertises their blend, so they are clearly aware of the implications of the mix and are marketing it on that basis.
  • MSR is a good winter blend, 80% isobutane and 20% propane.  These numbers are confirmed on MSR's website.  MSR is pretty committed to the climbing and mountaineering community.  They are pretty committed to quality control.  I tend to trust MSR's numbers and believe that they have very low percentages of n-butane.  I generally go with MSR on my cold weather trips.  Your mileage may vary.
  • Snow Peak is 85% isobutane and 15% propane.  These numbers are confirmed on Snow Peak's website.  I tend to trust Snow Peak's numbers more since they are willing to commit to them in writing.  This mix isn't quite as good as Olicamp's or MSR's but is still a reasonably good mix.
BRANDS OF UNKNOWN QUALITY (in no particular order):
  • Jetboil is supposedly 80% isobutane and 20% propane.  Possibly.  I have not been able to confirm these numbers.  How much n-butane does it contain?  I don't know.   No where will Jetboil put down in writing what their actual numbers are.  This tells me that their blend varies a lot.  Jetboil wouldn't be my first choice simply because Jetboil will not commit, in writing, to any set of numbers.  My understanding is that they can have more than 5% n-butane and still advertise that their mix as "isobutane" so long as it's mostly isobutane.
  • Brunton is reputedly an 80/20 mix.  Maybe.  I have not been able to confirm these numbers.  Brunton's reputation isn't that good in cold weather.  They may have a relatively high percentage of n-butane (which again they can advertise as isobutane so long as the majority of the butane is isobutane).  Brunton would not be my first choice since they won't commit to a particular blend.
  • Sterno is an isobutane mix according to the label on their cans.  What is the mix?  Unknown.  How much n-butane does their "isobutane" mix contain?  Unknown.  If nothing else were available, I guess you could go with it, but I myself would probably go with a brand that will commit to a certain set of numbers.
  • GSI, likewise, is an isobutane mix according to the label on their cans.  What is the mix?  Unknown.  How much n-butane does their "isobutane" mix contain?  Unknown.  If nothing else were available, I guess you could go with it.  I'd rather have a commitment, but sometimes you don't have every brand available at a given location.  I'd go with an "unknown" like GSI over a known mix if the known mix were labeled as containing n-butane.

    BRANDS NOT RECOMMENDED* FOR WINTER USE (in no particular order)
    • Coleman regular threaded canisters (not Powermax) are 30% propane and 70% butane.  These numbers on on the side of the canister.
    • Primus is 25 % propane, 25 % isobutane, and 50 % butane per their website.  I suppose it's better than Coleman brand, but I'd still rather have a fuel with no regular butane at all.  Note that this is their "regular" mix.  They do have a winter mix and a summer mix.  Definitely don't use the summer mix for cold weather!  The winter mix may be good, but I haven't been able to track down any numbers.
    • Optimus brand is 25% propane, 75% butane, as printed on the side of the canister.  Since it contains regular butane, I wouldn't use it in cold weather.
    • Glowmaster is 20% propane and 80% butane per the side of the canister. 

    One caveat to the above:  If you're using standard threaded canisters in liquid feed mode (in other words, the canister is used upside down) or you're using a canister that is designed for liquid feed (e.g. a Powermax canister), the n-butane vs. isobutane issue matters less, although I would still generally prefer isobutane had I a choice.  In liquid feed mode, the liquefied gas stays blended and all of the fuels burn together at a constant rate.  With liquid feed, the propane does not burn off more quickly, and you're not left holding the bag with nothing but crummy (in cold weather) n-butane left.  In other words, with liquid feed, "regular" butane isn't such a bad thing provided that you've got plenty of propane content.

    For "normal" (canister right side up) use, avoid "regular" butane for cold weather.


    *Because they contain "regular" butane, a very poor fuel in cold weather.

    Related articles and posts:


    1. Hi HJ,

      If Bruton are made by Kovea in Korea which we get here in Australia as Kovea fuel, then they are possibly a 70% Iso-butane and 30% Propane blend, but this is for 100g and 230g canisters, the 450g canisters are 75% Iso-butane, 25% Propane. Here the MSR canister fuel is around twice the price of Kovea fuel, a real ripoff.


    2. Hi, Tony,

      If only 70% Iso-butane and 30% Propane were available here! I dream of such a nice mix. Alas, but it appears the nervous Nellies that regulate such things have decided that such a mix isn't safe enough. Even our Powermax fuel is of a lesser grade than elsewhere. I've seen 60/40 butane/propane Powermax canisters outside the US. All we have here is 65/35. :(


    3. Hi Jim,

      I have also read that Max fuel was 60/40, Roger C also thought this and wrote this on his FAQ site, but I have never been able to find any evidence that it is anything other than 65/35.

      Sadly as Max fuel is no longer available her in OZ I will be refilling my Max canisters with 70/30 fuel.


    4. The really sad thing is that Powermax fuel is no longer available ANYWHERE. Coleman has completely discontinued it. Powermax is 65/35 in the US but 60/40 elsewhere. I've seen the MSDS for the US, and I've seen the printing on the side of the canister elsewhere.


    5. Jim, I used Brunton and MSR gas on a caribou hunt this past October on Alaska's North Slope. Temps were down to about -5F. I brought one 8oz canister of each brand, knowing I'd have to swap them out when they got cold. Stove was an MSR Reactor, using the standard pot, boiling water and melting snow for three people for three days.
      I routinely had to swap out the canisters every 5-15 minutes, depending on ambient temperature and whether cooking inside my GoLite Shangri-La 3 or outside on the tundra. All stove use was on a small piece of closed-cell foam I brought to insulate from the cold ground.
      MOST NOTED was how much better the MSR fuel did compared to the Brunton, which I now think is complete garbage. I continually tried to keep the canisters at the same temperature and fuel level and definitely saw a difference between the two. The MSR ended up spending much more time on the Reactor on the final day and a half, as the Brunton was only good for the time it took me to warm the MSR canister inside my jacket or sleeping bag as I sat and melted snow. Often times, when the temps were colder, I had to remove the terribly performing Brunton canister to put on the not-yet warm MSR canister, which would last noticeably longer at the same temperature, over and over, as I swapped out the cans in the process of melting liters of water for three people.

      The MSR can easily out-performed the Brunton in 'cold weather.' I would never buy the Brunton canisters again for cold weather use.

    6. Josh,

      Were both canisters brand new? Both 100% full at the start?


    7. Weird. You shouldn't have that dramatic of a difference between two brands of propane-isobutane blend gas. The only thing I can think of is that the Brunton was a bad batch and had a lot of "regular" butane in it (not isobutane).

      Funny thing about it is that I've talked to guys that have had the opposite experience (where the MSR turned out to be the bad brand).


    8. Hello, Thanks for some great posts about the use of gas in winter. I've linked to your post from my blog.
      Keld - havkajakblog.blogspot.dk

    9. Do you know of currently manufactured canisters that fit the Graz Globetrotter? Neither I, nor anyone with whom I have spoken, can find any canisters here in the USA or in foreign countries. Thanks

      1. Hi, Eric,

        No, I don't, and I've looked too. I wish, but the "half height" puncture-type canisters are simply not to be found -- anywhere.

        What you can do is take the bails off a larger stove and put them on the Globetrotter which allows the Globetrotter to then use the full height standard puncture type canisters which are available.


      2. HJ,

        Can you identify these larger stoves for me?


      3. Eric,

        Take a look at eBay. The Gaz S-210 comes immediately to mind.
        Here are some photos: http://www.spiritburner.com/fusion/showtopic.php?tid/16315


    10. I used to live in chile where the local mix for canister fuel was 75% isobutane 25% propane..... there was also other brands offering 70% isobutane 30% propane mixes.


      1. Those are excellent mixes, Oscar. The best one can get in the United States is 80/20 isobutane/propane. Definitely use that 70/30 mix for cold weather.


      2. its been a while since the original comment but i thought id share this.....


    11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    12. Also take a look at Olicamp Rocket Fuel which you can get here in the US - 25% propane/75% isobutane.

    13. Hello

      I don't see too much difference between a 80/20 iso/butane and a 70/30 propane/butane blend for a winter or altitude use according to the charts found in the Cold Weather Operation section http://zenstoves.net/Canister.htm

      I'd rather try a 100 percent propane canister on a Msr Reactor for instance
      Has anyone tried the Coleman Green Propane Canister https://www.tentworld.com.au/buy-sale/coleman-lightweight-lpg-propane-bottle-cartridge-green with this backpacking stove ?

      thank you

    14. I have successfully used the MSR Reactor on 100% propane canisters a few times in the White Mountains, on presidential traverses, in below zero temperatures, once at -15 F. With enough people and a long enough trip, the weight increase with those canisters isn't all that much more. I use this adapter: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00ULB2E70/ref=s9_acsd_hps_bw_c_x_5_r. Also something I learned from the MSR rep is that there are 2 larger hole areas on both sides of the valve on the burner, cover these with your thumbs, to make the stove prime much faster, works kind of like a choke.

    15. I like to test my fuels and stoves by placing these in the freezer overnight at minus 28degrees celsius. I find the fuel canisters available at Anaconda (Australia) still work at these temperatures, but do provide significantly reduced pressure. I have used the four season mix on multiple snow hikes without issue.


    My apologies to real people, but due to Spammers I have to moderate comments. I'll get to this as rapidly as possible but do understand that I like to hike and there's no internet in the wilderness. Take care and stove on!