Saturday, March 10, 2012

The "Starter" Stove

I've been asked a number of times a question something like this:  "Hey, Jim, I'm just getting into backpacking; what stove should I get?"

Good question, and I've got a couple of ideas, naturally.  :)

My recommendation for a "starter" stove for someone getting into backpacking is typically going to be a canister gas stove, that is a stove that runs on a canister of compressed gas (typically propane mixed with either isobutane or regular butane).  A canister stove is going to be the most like a gas stove that you might have at home and probably has the easiest "learning curve" to negotiate of any of the major types of stoves.   If you want to start out on wood, alcohol, ESBIT, or liquid petroleum fuels, knock yourself out, but my recommendation is for a canister gas stove.

And when I say "starter" stove, I don't mean some "El Cheapo" piece of junk that you're going to want to dump in the trash after you've used it a few times.  I'm going to recommend some good value-for-the-dollar options that might very well be the only stove you'll ever need.  Of course some of you will be bitten by the "stove bug" and want to branch out, but what I'll present today are some good options that should stand you in good stead for many years to come.

As usual, I won't try to do your thinking for you.  I'm going to present some options, and you'll need to then select a stove based on your needs and your price constraints.  I'm going to present some choices in two sub categories of canister stoves:  regular upright canister stoves and integrated canister stoves.  I'll address each sub category in turn.

Regular Upright Canister Stoves
An upright canister stove is just a small gas burner that mounts directly on top of a canister of gas.  By "regular," I mean just the typical stove sold alone, not a stove that is tied to a particular pot.  Examples of some popular regular upright canister stoves include the MSR PocketRocket, the Optimus Crux, the Soto MicroRegulator, and the Snow Peak GigaPower.

My typical recommendation for a good stove for the dollar is the Snow Peak GigaPower (GS-100) which is $40.00 (not including any taxes and shipping) for the manual version.  That's an excellent value.  It's not the lightest nor the most compact, but it's a very good stove and reasonably compact.

But what to cook in?  Tall, mug shaped pots are quite popular, but honestly I don't recommend them.  Such mug shaped pots are very narrow, and a lot of heat gets wasted up the sides.  The smallest I would go with is the MSR Titan Kettle which is 850ml.  I actually think a 1000ml (1 liter in other words) pot is the most versatile pot size.  It's maybe slightly big (but not much) for one person, but it's very versatile, and if you get a pot that is wider than it is tall, it's more efficient in terms of catching the flame and not wasting flames up the side of the pot.  Always run your stove on medium flame for best efficiency.  A high flame is seldom needed and wastes fuel.

What should that pot be made out of?  Titanium cookware is best for boiling water.  If you want to do more than boiling water, then I recommend aluminum cookware, particularly hard anodized aluminum.  Hard anodized aluminum is typically cheaper than titanium, nearly as durable, and nearly as light, but aluminum is far better for cooking inasmuch as it distributes heat well whereas titanium is infamous for "hot spotting" (where the spot where the flame hits gets hot and burns).

Regular canister stoves are quite vulnerable to wind.  I typically use some kind of a windscreen.  You have to be careful though.  Trap too much heat, and you might overheat the canister and it might explode.  One must feel the canister frequently and consistently with one's hand.  If the canister feels hot, immediately turn the stove down, open up the windscreen, and take the pot off the stove until things cool down.  Only diligent, attentive people should use a windscreen with a canister stove.  If one is the type whose mind wanders or is easily distracted, a windscreen might not be such a good idea.  Manufacturers of course state that a windscreen should never be used at all, so you're on your own if you use a windscreen.  I personally believe that windscreens are safe if you are checking the canister frequently. Be aware that not only could a canister explosion result from allowing too much heat to build up but that one could also melt any plastic parts of a stove.

Integrated Canister Stoves
By "integrated" I mean a pot and stove that are sold together and are designed for each other.  Examples of integrated canister stoves would be the JetBoil PCS, Flash, Zip, and Sol as well as the MSR Reactor.  Everyone knows that integrated canister stoves are efficient and boil water quickly, but if you get an integrated canister stove, you also get a "secret" feature:  wind resistance.  The burner is protected to varying degrees by the heat exchanger.  Particularly the MSR Reactor is windproof.

Also with an integrated canister stove, one does not have to worry about what pot to select; a pot is provided, and the pot provided works very well with the stove.

A good integrated canister stove isn't cheap, but when you consider the cost of a pot and a stove, some of the lower priced integrated canister stoves stack up pretty well in the cost department.  In particular, the Jetboil Zip (MSRP $75) is a real deal.  For those who want a higher end stove and are willing to pay for it, the aluminum Jetboil Sol (MSRP $120) is an excellent choice.  Jetboil also has a titanium Jetboil Sol (MSRP $150) that as far as I can tell is only one ounce lighter than the aluminum version.  The Jetboil website says two ounces lighter, but the cup is not included in the weight listed for the titanium version whereas the cup is listed for the aluminum version.  When a comparison is done that includes the same components, the aluminum and titanium versions appear to be only about one ounce different.  I'm not sure that one ounce in weight savings is worth an additional $30, but that is up to the individual to decide.  There have been some reports where the heat exchanger fins have melted on the titanium version of the Jetboil Sol when doing more than boiling water (e.g. cooking soups, dehydrated meals, etc.).  There have even been a few, very few, reports of heat exchanger fins melting when all that was being done was boiling water.  Lastly, there have also been some reports that the titanium Jetboil Sol might be dangerous, but, after looking into the issue, I do not believe that the titanium Sol is dangerous.

If one were wanted a good stove set up, a Jetboil Zip or aluminum Sol are excellent choices.  I'm not recommending the titanium Sol at this time.

I will have a review of the Jetboil Sol available soon.  Check back in about a week.

Which is better, a regular canister stove or an integrated canister stove?  Hard to say, really.  The regular is typically cheaper and lighter but is less efficient and more vulnerable to wind.  The integrated is typically more expensive and heavier but is more efficient and more wind resistant.  While I can present some pros and cons, ultimately the choice must be left up to the individual.  Whether you pick up a regular canister stove like a Snow Peak GigaPower (and the pot of your choice) or you pick up, say, a JetBoil, I think you'll have a stove that will serve you well.  Either would be a good choice.

I thank you for joining me on another Adventure in Stoving,


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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!